Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Beginning with a stunning prologue establishing the central conflict, much like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit promises too much but delivers less.

Frodo was an inquisitive young man who grew up listening to his uncle's adventure stories. All it took was a little prod to get him going on his journey. Bilbo, though, has grown overly fond of his Mother's china and the comfort of his home. The arrival of Gandalf was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. I understand his need to take some time to make up his mind but eating up close to an 45 minutes of runtime is a little too much. 

One of the biggest problems with the movie is its lack of enough new, memorable characters. The film received loudest cheers when Serkis' Gollum appeared. The weight of taking the story forward fell on Martin Freeman's Bilbo, who did whatever he could to give us someone to champion. Since he got no help from his dwarf friends, the effects were not entirely satisfactory. I had read how the dwarves lacked personality and that is very true. The ones I remember right now are Thorin, Kili, the one who wore a Russian fur cap and the sagely old dwarf. The others are largely forgettable.   There are some six who I don't remember seeing even after looking at their character posters. And what's the deal with Radagast the Grey? I seriously don't know what happened there. His entire part contributed to further bloat the movie.

There's this scene in a cave between Bilbo and Gollum where he comes to possess the Ring dropped by the latter. Ultimately, after a fantastically staged riddle session, Bilbo is faced with the dilemma of whether to spare Gollum's life or not. In that instant, I couldn't help but look at the bigger picture. About how that particular scene goes on to play such a critical role in history of middle earth, forever altering the course of lives of so many. In a surprisingly touching moment, with a close up on Gollum's faces, Bilbo's decision to spare him echoed Gandalf words: "Courage is not about knowing when to take a life... but when to spare one!” I don't think I will ever find myself even remotely in a position where I'd need that bit of wisdom, but its these lines about compassion, friendship and other qualities that made those three films so damn special. 

I was very late to catching up with the Lord of the Rings movies, but even when I did, I had not seen anything like it. I still haven't seen anything like it. Structure-wise, The Hobbit appears to be similar to them. It's hard to look at this movie and not compare it with those earlier ones. It has its share of big action set pieces in the final act but still gives the impression that it is working on a much smaller scale. Like it is playing out to those little kids in the Shire Bilbo tells his stories to, and easily scares with a sudden "puff!". We have already witnessed battles of indescribable magnitude. This feels like a severely watered-down version of middle earth. But after lifting the weight of its unarguably superior sequels off its chest, The Hobbit is an adequately entertaining adventure film.

On the whole, The Hobbit is definitely a bloated entry which could have benefited from Del Toro's vision. It doesn't move any mountains (pun honestly unintended), but injects tiny doses of nostalgia at regular intervals. I am hardly dying to see the next two entries, and to be honest, I wasn't very high on watching this film even before the not-so-impressed reviews started appearing. The Hobbit is a very good Narnia movie. I had fun. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sattam Oru Iruttarai (2012)

Since I started reviewing Tamil films, I have learnt to adjust my expectations. If it is a film by a top director, I would except a gimmicky mess, with stuff like 'echolocation' and 'conjoined twins'; if it is a low-budget film like Sembattai or Ariyaan, I would expect to be tortured. In the last 3 to 4 months, I have almost never had high hopes out of any movie, with the exception of Pizza- a movie which actually managed to deliver. But I hoped good things from someone like Sneha Britto- someone who is younger than I am. I expected her to have a taste in cinema after growing up with exposure to foreign films. I had severely miscalculated. 

While reviewing Tamil films, I tend to be careful when dealing with negative superlatives, but Sattam Oru Iruttarai is, without a shred of doubt, one of the worst films I have ever seen. Unlike other worst movies I have had the misfortune of watching, this one didn't make me furious. It did not drive me crazy. The thing is the film is unbelievably hilarious for all the unintentional reasons. In a perfect world, this movie will be revered by fanboys for its Ed Wood-ishness. 

Throughout the movie, which almost never had anything interesting to say, I kept noticing how the audience at my screening were reacting. I looked at this kid who was brought to watch the film because his teacher appeared in one scene. I was almost desperate to know if they realized that they were watching an extremely shoddy film or were totally oblivious to the fact. Thankfully, the crowd reaffirmed my faith in them by laughing out loud at all the lame scenes. Right now, I'm not even in a mood to bash this film. I confess I had a rather fun time, thanks to the awesome strangers I sat next to.

I don't want to point out faults with the placement of songs or bad acting or poorly written lines or the excessiveness of coincidence or logical inconsistencies. Many films get those wrong. Sattam is different. It is special. The extent to which things go wrong in this movie is indescribable. I am not going to be easy on Britto because she's younger than me or because this is only her first film. There are directors who in spite of making a bad debut show a hint of promise. But Britto's film clearly suggests she is bereft of even that quality. Tamil cinema doesn't need her. We have enough incompetence, thank you. 

I still keep wondering if it was intentionally bad. I mean, how can someone make such a bad movie with a straight face? It's a remake for chrissake. All she had to do was to not eff up. With a story which was pretty dated even in the early 80s, Sattam is a dinosaur in today's age.

Smaller filmmakers are not often blessed with good looking actors. Be it Reema Sen, who plays an unbelievably stupid Commissioner of Police, or Pia Bajpai who keeps saying, "What do you think of your self?", over 5-6 times.. I'm sure all the actors in this film are capable of doing a better work under a better director. I cannot but blame Britto for every thing that went wrong with the film. Yes, we all know how stingy producer SAC can be, but that's hardly an excuse. There's a song sequence where the lead pair dance in front of Chroma key-ed photographs of a few random places in Hong Kong, downloaded from Google Images.

As I walked out of the screening, I learnt that the lead actor and the director of the film were present during the final minutes of our screening. The guy, who looks like Ravi Krishna with bad hair, seemed very pleased with the audiences' response, which could be accurately summed up using the smiley :-| Playing out like a tawdry three hour long advertisement for Skullcandy headphones, Sattam Oru Iruttarai is an embarrassment to the universe. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Neethane En Ponvasantham (2012)

There are certain things we have come to associate with Gautam Menon's brand of cinema. Starting with Vaaranam Aayiram, I have been disappointed with each movie of his; I still ended up catching all his releases on the big screen. What is it about his films that makes them so appealing? For one, they are not crass. He tries too much and it doesn't always reflect properly, but I still like him for trying. Now, he has gone into an autopilot mode of sorts. His English speaking characters and their coffee shop love has started appearing trite. Walking in with zero expectations, I came out beaten black and blue.

Some people will tell you you will love this film if you have been in love; trust them at your own risk. Being able to relate to characters is one thing; being able to relate to characters in an atrociously boring movie is another. The film takes too much effort to balance out the blame on both the characters for being responsible in the failure of their relationship. It felt like watching a scoreboard going Nithya 1, Varun 2. Just for the sake of non-linearity, there are a couple of unnecessary "moments" from their high school life-- something which could have been done away with a single line. I understand the necessity of lame reasons which resulted in the break up of their younger selves, but growing up into mature adults and still being adamantly unreasonable is unforgivable.

I have horrific memories of sitting through Twilight, which painstakingly goes about describing Robert Pattinson's rosy lips and sparkly cheeks. NEP manages to go one step further to unbearable limits with its cutesy descriptions of its female lead, making it impossible to not OD on all the cheesiness. I gotta say this though, Samantha blushes really well. Jiiva, though, has this annoying fake accent trying to sound extra classy. Like my friend said, Royapuram cannot become R.A.Puram.

To make up for its utter lack of narrative coherence, the film, as an excuse, uses a title card calling itself 'Moments from Varun-Nithya’s love story'. Apart from being jarringly slow, the film loses whatever little sense of direction it had after the halfway mark. Stooping down to the level of attempting at humor using Santhanam and Nithya's plump friend's VTV-styled romance, the film made me care less and less about its lead characters.

If I wanted to know about the sorry love life of two people, I would rather call up a few of my friends and ask them how things were going. This is not even about escapist, happy-happy cinema. Love stories can definitely be brutally real and make you care for the characters. Take Blue Valentine, for instance. With long uncut shots, Menon tries to shake cinematic branches but only manages to achieve faux-realism. I love it when movies make me uncomfortable, but I hate it when they end up making me squeamish in the process.

While Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya at least had Rahman's great soundtrack to fall back on, NEP masquerades as a timeless Ilayaraja musical, while having songs which are mediocre even by his own unimpressive recent track record.

The film could have at least redeemed itself by doing something inventive in its closing minutes. But unfortunately, there's no payoff at any point of time for sitting through this almost pointless exercise in storytelling. Ultimately, Neethane En Ponvasantham is a crashing bore; it is full of silly arguments and no one gets laid. Now you know what Gautam Menon meant when he said, "This could be your love story."

In the scene where Varun returns home to see his brother dejected after being shamed by the family of the girl he likes, there's this realism which I wished existed throughout all of the movie's familial interactions. A son feeling awful for putting his Father in that place, a Mother who never spoke a word through all the embarrassment and only worried for her son and husband, and the Father having his own share of regrets... that's the only scene I took back from this movie. The funny thing is it has very little to do with the actual love story at hand. The mother saying,"Cha romba elakarama pesitanga theriyuma.." was the single best delivered line in the entire film.

Varun's brother hinting at ending his own life was a little too much, but I still feared something of that sort was in the offing. While the focus shifted to the Mother, and she asked Varun to go check on his Father, I expected him to be hanging from a noose. The scene was clearly directed to put that thought in our head. If that isn't convincing enough, the shot of Varun's brother's feet clearly confirmed things for me. I am not sure if I liked the way tension was manufactured, but I did worry a bit. Yeah, I think that scene was done pretty well. It makes Varun's change of heart all the more believable, instead of being an out-of-nowhere gnana oli moment. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi is hardly the emotional tour de force it was made out to be. At the end of it, I was more puzzled by its bluntness in delivering the "message". The film's religious undertones, or in this case, not-so-under tones, had me wishing it were a little more subtle. There are too many in-your-face moments. No, the 3D is fine. I'm referring to conversations where subtlety is dispensed in favor of obviousness. For instance, there's this deeply thought provoking moment which had me thinking how differently we react to the deaths of an Orangutan and that of a fish, which got ruined with Pi saying,"Thank you Vishnu for coming to us in the form of this fish." 

In the house of faith, I live on the second floor in the room of doubt. I totally understand the necessity of having something to unconditionally believe in. Religion is a very good concept when looked upon as a way of life more than anything else. But it is imperative for followers to not be a sponge and absorb every last bit of nonsense. Talking about faith in a higher authority is never easy and trying to put the various faiths into a context and giving each its own share of space and reverence is some task. I am not able to make up my mind as to whether the film is philosophically ambitious or pretending to be one, hiding behind the skirt of dazzling pictures. 

More than anything, Life of Pi reminded me of Tim Burton's fantastic Big Fish. Pi is a fantasy film which asks you to believe. Not just believe it within the framework of a movie, but believe miracles can happen in the world we belong in. For me, the question is not whether I choose to believe. My problem is Pi bites more than it can chew. The things which happen over the course of 227 days may be hard to believe. But, if I say I do, what does it amount to? Does dressing a gritty cut-throat story in fantasy make it all the more believable? Is reality harder to digest? The concept of religion itself  wouldn't exist were it more rationalized? We need the fantasy. We want the enigma. We pretend we want to know the answers, but we are only too happy to live the puzzle. Maybe we can't handle the truth. Maybe I have no idea what I am talking about. 

I have always had trouble watching Indian actors in Hollywood films. They have this language handicap which I expect them to overcome in order to impress me. That happens very occasionally, and only in few select scenes when it does. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi Patel, is uneven and there were moments where I wished Lee had dealt in silences. But full marks for his physical acting. I cannot imagine how tiring the whole task was. Irrfan Khan is good as the older Pi. I often saw shades of Irrfan in Suraj; or it could have been the other way round, I am not sure. The film's best performance, though, is given by a computer generated Tiger

A fellow reviewer had noted how it doesn't take one to believe in God to admire Life of Pi and how belief in Cinema would alone suffice.Well, the film sure is a towering achievement bringing to life a vision so unique. But the "message" may not be to everyone's liking. You can try to ignore it but it is present everywhere you look. The life lessons Pi gets as a kid from his Mother and Father, his subsequent loss of innocence come to play a role in his ordeal, but his journey of a lifetime felt too convenient. If I try to keep myself content with the tale of undying human spirit conquering all odds, I still have a better option in Cast Away to turn to. I never really felt compelled to root for Pi. Nothing soared anywhere inside me when his feet touched solid ground. Nothing really changed. A copy of Life of Pi will be a value addition to your bluray collection, giving your Avatar copy some much needed rest. That's all there is to it. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (2012)

Disclaimer: This reviewer confesses to have watched Twilight, and even read the book. He fast-forwarded through most parts of New Moon and never bothered to watch Eclipse and Breaking Dawn Part 1. That said, he is a great fan of the soundtracks. He has always maintained that he wouldn't watch the Twilight movies unless someone paid him to. That day has finally come. With very little knowledge about the plot of the previous three entries, he hopes you will appreciate this perspective. 

From my own experience and from the universal critical hatred, I have come to expect bad things from the Twilight movies.. very bad things. I have most successfully managed to avoid them till now. Breaking Dawn Part 2 brings to end a series that is as fiercely loved as it is hated. I walked in with very low expectations. I am happy the film didn't give me too many reasons to dislike it. 

The central conflict in Breaking Dawn is itself very thin. The Volturis, sort of a governing body for vampires, get the word that Cullens have a turned a little girl into a vampire. This, according to them, is an incredibly dangerous threat to the secrecy of their kind. Bella's new born is, in fact, a half-mortal, conceived when she was still a human. The little girl, with an awful portmanteau name Renesmee, grows six inches over a few weeks and her idiot, happily ignorant grandfather suspects nothing. You know what? Never mind with the plot. I don't fully understand it myself. Just bear in mind that the misinformed Volturis arrive at the doorstep of Cullens to set things right. 

There are many ways to end a love triangle, comprising two men and a woman. You can kill off a guy and hook up the remaining two. You can bring a new girl and make two pairs. Or you can hook two people up, let them have a baby and hitch her to the guy who remains solo. Yes, Breaking Dawn does exactly that! Trying to rationalize one of the most WTF plot lines in the history of WTF plot line, Jacob The Big Dog ultimately finds love in a hopeless place. He is said to have "imprinted" something on Bella and Edward's two day old baby, making her his bitch for life. As if trolls didn't have enough cud to chew on. 

The first hour involves Cullens recruiting Vampires and forming a private army to fight the Volturis. A freak show soon ensues, with weirdos from different corners of the world reaching out to offer their services. Any one who can tell their good movies apart from the bad ones is very much likely to roll his eyes dry. Right from the clunky dialogues to equally creative acting, most part of the movie is pure torture. But, wait, it's not all that bad. The whole part leading up to the final, climactic battle may be painfully boring, but what follows is deliciously fun. I am surprised how much enjoyable the whole sequence was. Michael Sheen's goofiness definitely added to the experience. And to top all that with a twist which I so did not see coming.. well played! 

I cannot promise you a good time, but Breaking Dawn is definitely an adaptation which will satisfy the fans. Avoid it if you can, but if the girlfriend is too persistent, just go. Sit through the first half; trust me it surely gets better. It is only a matter of time before Hollywood, tweenage girls and a few boys with weird taste in movies find themselves another franchise to collectively orgasm over. I am just thankful the series is over. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thuppakki (2012)

I have never been more excited to review a movie. Any movie. I attended a 4:30 AM screening- one of the earliest in the city. The infectious energy of die-hard fans screaming their lungs out kind of got to me. By the end of the movie, I found myself clapping my hands high over my head, screaming along with them, who had just witnessed their idol like never before. Thuppaki is easily one of the most entertaining Tamil films in a long, long time. In my opinion, it is Vijay's best film till date. 

The last Vijay film I saw on the big screen was Sachien, and it goes without saying that I have never really been a fan of his. Time and again, he has been criticized for not experimenting with his looks, and his character in general. In other words, he has always been playing himself in his movies. But with this film, Vijay breaks the mold and how. We don't associate the word 'cerebral' with the characters Vijay plays, but his Jagdish is convincingly intelligent. And for the first time, I saw the character instead of the mass hero that he is. He is exceedingly likable and belts out lines in Hindi like it is his second language. There are no quick answers in life, and Jagdish, too, takes his own time as he goes about solving this case. From taking sudden inspirations in the middle of a romantic moment to spending a night on a bench near Marine Drive, it is these elements that make his intelligence seem all the more believable. 

Murugadoss totally owns Mumbai, making a film that smoothly gliding over the language barrier. Setting a Tamil film entirely in another city has to be commended. After critical failures like Thaandavam, Billa 2 and Maattrraan, Thuppakki gives me hope that, one day, Tamil cinema will also be able to make an international film. But till then, national is good enough.  

Vidyut Jamwal's formidable antagonist, who remains unnamed, is instrumental to the film's success. He's not the villain we are used to- there aren't any daais and doois. He speaks in perfect English and confesses to knowing Tamil only konjam konjam. Running a widespread network of sleeper cells, his motives make perfect sense. His fight is not even against Jagadish in the first place. It so happens that their paths cross, before things eventually get personal. Breaking him mentally and physically, it is he who makes Jagadish appear stronger. 

The story is not just about Jagadish hunting down the operator of the sleeper cell network. It also involves his personal life- family, girlfriend etc. So every time the movie pauses for a lighter moment or a song sequence,  it is not cutting out of more pressing issues, but sculpting a different side to his character. Sreekar Prasad's editing does wonders to the film. The pacing is so good and the humor is so well infused into the narrative, it doesn't divert your attention from the primary issue. There's always this feeling that something bad can happen just about any time. There's this sprawling action sequence set across major locations in Mumbai that shows just how good the editing is.

Santosh Sivan's camera makes sweet, sweet love to the streets of Mumbai. Craft-wise, Thuppakki excels immensely. The writing is very smart and unpredictable. Even the clichés are comforting. Also, the fights were choreographed  really well. 

Kajal Aggarwal's Nisha is a pataka. This film will do that to her what Ghajini did to Asin's career. She is gorgeous and acts well enough. Sathyan's presence is necessary but Jagadish's conversations with his character sort of simplifies the movie. The songs may just be okay, but Harris Jeyaraj's background score is surprisingly very effective.

It delivers on almost all the counts, and you cannot ask for more from a commercial film like this. There's little one could do to make this movie better, while retaining all the plot points. At a run-time of 170 minutes, it's a grand achievement how the film never has a dull moment. The armed forces of India couldn't ask for a better tribute. Jagadish is our very own James Bond and I don't see why we shouldn't have a sequel. Turn this into a franchise, I say! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Argo (2012)

On my way home after watching Argo, I kept thinking how the film probably wouldn't have made the same impact if it was not based on a real incident. That's the advantage when films are based on true stories. But on the flip side, retelling a story people may be familiar with has its own troubles. What makes Argo one of best films of the year thus far is that it offers a deeply involving story with edge of the seat thrills.

The task of getting the six hostages out of Iran is insurmountable as it is. But the odds keep stacking up against them, with problems springing up from the unlikeliest of places. Iranian children putting together shredded documents, a house maid you cannot fully trust, natives who have recently developed a general dislike for foreigners, a movie crew shooting thousand miles away in Hollywood.. obstacles never stop cropping up.

It may not exactly be about that, but it still is one of the best movies about the movie business. Lines like "I took a leak next to Beatty during the Golden Globes", "Groucho said that?!" and “You're worried about Khomeini? Try the WGA." were so naturally insidery. Perfectly complementing the tense tone of the film, the many nervous laughs, courtesy Arkin and Goodman, saved me from having a stroke.

In spite of guessing the outcome of this grand, absurd plan, I was thoroughly hooked. I don't remember the last time I was as nervous during a film's key moments. I sank so deep in my seat during an airplane scene, looking at the screen through webbed fingers.

The opening moments which juxtaposed shots with actual footage instantly reminded me of Oliver Stone's JFK. This film is a tribute to all the unsung heroes who audaciously carried out this ludicrous plan. It's all about trusting the judgments of others and putting every last bit of faith in them. This bit reminded me of Moneyball. 

Affleck has made a movie with something for everyone. He has finally left his beloved Boston behind, has ventured to make a truly international film. The closing images of the film note how this event and its follow up is still considered an example of what can be achieved with international cooperation. The film is politically charged, and is very unbiased when it comes to pointing fingers. For some reason, I found it very heartening to see Canada get the honours. It's a film filled with many heroes.

Skyfall (2012)

Disappointment. I have been a fan of Daniel Craig ever since I saw Casino Royale. I immediately considered him my favorite Bond, because the others, to me, have always appeared like a bunch of pussies with cool guns. I like the direction the series took and I am still glad to see where it ended with this latest film. It's just that I found Skyfall to be a not-so-intelligent film which rehashed most of the ideas recently dealt in Nolan's Batman trilogy.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening sequence. When an action scene makes you duck, twitch and cower in your seat, you can tell that shit's tight. I am trying to recall the point where the movie stopped working for me and I think it was around the time Bardem appeared. After the whole build up they give him, he didn't quite live up to it when he finally appeared. Intentional or otherwise, the homoerotic tension was very weird. In spite of his Joker-like physical deformity, he was never really intimidating. It's not like he's not a formidable opponent for Bond. Also, I wasn't quite taken with his motives either.

I am not well familiar with old Bond films and my knowledge is mostly limited to the ones starring Craig. You can hold this against me if you want to, but I never thought there could be a character as useless as that portrayed by Gemma Arterton in QoS. Now I notice a pattern emerging. The scope of the Bond girl who eventually ends up dead is very limited. I don't know if this is a case of genre trapping but Berenice Marlohe's Severine follows in the illustrious footsteps, showing up in a completely dispensable role. All that foreplay lead to nothing.

I am disappointed and the tone of this review may appear too negative, but the movie is not all that bad. For one thing, there's a real clarity in the events taking place. Unlike QoS, which I still don't know for sure what it's about, Skyfall benefits from Mendes' confident direction. Too bad he was let down by a script that offers nothing new. Every little idea it dealt with have already been beaten to pulp in Nolan's Batman films. It was hard for me to not get reminded of League of Shadows when M talks about Bond and Silva growing up in the shadows. The "die a hero or live long enough.." position M finds herself in, the ageing hero filled with self-doubt that Bond is, Silva's capture and subsequent escape, a disk with information about all the secret agents, an ex-operative going rogue.. I don't know, it never felt novel. Due to all this mishmash, the entire conversation about the relevance of field agents in the digital age sort of got lost.

His relationship with M, which is at this story's core, surprisingly, had no effect on me. Deakins' cinematography is the only thing I wholeheartedly admired. Movie will probably play better on a second viewing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Film-Viewing Log: October

First Time Viewings: 
  1. The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford
  2. Boogie Nights
  3. Argo
  4. Looper
  5. Sideways
  6. Killing Them Softly
  7. Hard Eight
  8. Pizza
  9. On the Road
  10. Magic Mike
  11. Butter
  12. Cloud Atlas
  13. Seeking a Friend for the End of The World
  14. V/H/S
  15. Aarohanam
  16. The Brothers Bloom
  17. Maattrraan
  18. Damsels in Distress
  19. Rock of Ages
  20. Sembattai
  21. Sivangi
  1. Gone Baby Gone

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Aarohanam (2012)

Taking place entirely in a day's time, Aarohanam is about the disappearance of a mother and how the succeeding events make her family realize her importance. Nirmala, the mother, is a strong-willed, loving woman who works odd jobs for the sake of her children. After being deserted by her husband, she takes it upon herself to provide for them and lead a prosperous life. Plagued with sporadic episodes of mental instability, Nirmala has it harder than most single mothers. She is a constant source of embarrassment to her son, who'd rather be associated with his estranged father than her.

To us, a character going missing may seem like a big deal, but to her family, it is just another day at the office. It is hard to believe a person who has been crying wolf all her life. The plight of a person with such an unpredictable disposition and that of her family unable to see the bigger picture has been portrayed with much sincerity without any sort of melodrama. Viji Chandrasekhar's performance is easily the film's high point.

I found most parts of the film endearing, but it became an unrecognizable monster during the final act- right after a major revelation. Appearing like an awkward cross between commercial and indie cinema, the movie loses most of its charm during a club dance sequence. The film worked well when it was being itself, without any sort of commercial aspirations. I loved the film for its subtlety before it went explicit and became "message oriented".

I didn't care much for the contrasting life lead by the other important woman in the film, who chose to not get married. She's visibly an antithesis of everything we know about Nirmala. What I don't get is which incident from the evening triggered a change of heart in her. The character portrayed by Jayaprakash is absolutely pointless. Are we to gather corrupt politicians are also capable of gate-crashing a party and having a good time? Is he supposed to be some sort of a comic relief? Because I don't see how the film would be any different without him. Also, the whole subplot about some Telugu-speaking IAS officer kind of felt incomplete. A large section of the crowd at my screening were friends of the director and they cheered every time a face known to them first appeared. I just hope the writer didn't just add a string of characters just to cast some of her friends.

Throughout the film, I was unable to shake the feeling that I was watching a better written television show. I don't mind the lack of a cinematic feel as much as I mind the clumsiness of a few scenes. Shooting digital lent the film this odd realism it didn't work to capture. On the filpside, this realism highlighed the bad acting of a few actors with tiny speaking roles. Yes, I can choose to not criticise these issues since this happens to be the director's first film and was produced on a shoestring budget; but it kept niggling me; I had to put it out there. The non-linear narrative sure helps, though.

Aarohanam is a very personal film, attempting to do some good by creating awareness about a compelling health concern. I wouldn't call it self-important, but in my opinion, it fails to do better because it lets the feeling escape that it knows it is doing good. Like its lead character, the film is filled with highs and lows. I hate to put it this way but Aarohanam simply doesn't offer enough to chew on. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Boogie Nights (1997)

Like the departure from Silent to Sound in Sunset Blvd. and Singin' in the RainBoogie Nights becomes a very relevant film when it talks about the switch-over from film to tape. The question that why would people watch a film in such a poor quality has been asked every time a major technological advancement has been made. Digital has pretty much become a norm right now, and the spotlight has shifted to the 2D/3D argument. Having become the most successful producer of adult entertainment in La La Land, the onus is on Jack to embrace the future and move on. The film is set in the 70s and was made in late 90s and lot has changed now from then. Internet has completely changed the way we consume porn. With so much of quality stuff available for free, I have never found myself paying for adult content. Capturing the glory days of the industry, this entire subplot gave this film a great depth.

Does anyone continue watching porn after jerking off? I have always had this doubt in my head and Boogie Nights gave me the answer. Patrons almost always leave the cinema after their work is done. Jack's dream is to make such compelling porn films that people cannot but watch it till the end. Pushing boundaries of the medium by trying to give the sex a context, Jacks's movies are still hilariously bad but certainly an improvement. 

Most of the first act takes place within the close-knit world of pornstars. They aren't ashamed of the choices they made and have learned to embrace this just as any other profession. A sense of pride prevails during the house parties and the self-congratulatory award functions they attend. They are the children of mainstream Hollywood's shady cousin. I often felt the film was taking a dig at Hollywood's holier than thou attitude towards adult film industry. Turns out there isn't much of a difference. The lack of acceptance the characters face in the final act of the film is a sudden contrast. Banks refusing to offer loan, Court taking away custody of a child, dabbling into crime, etc. In spite of everything, PTA's movies are very fair and characters usually get what they deserve, and this one's no different.  

Everybody has a special thing. Apart from being exceptionally well-endowed in the nether region, Dirk is just another silly young man who struck gold. The whole enigma surrounding Dirk's penis is one of the funniest parts in the film. The many reaction shots revealed so much without revealing anything. $5 to just have a peek and $10 to see him jack off? You gotta be kiddin' me! In this one scene, where Heather Grahams is blowing Dirk, the top of her head bobs up to almost reach his neck. Go figure! But the final scene ruined it all by showing Diggler's prosthetic dongle. You just don't do that! It's like showing the content of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. Who cares if it's a MacGuffin. 

Anderson's debut feature Hard Eight had just four main characters. Boogie Nights, on the other hand, is cluttered with a dozen fascinating characters, all played by pretty great actors. This explains why he chose to go all out with Magnolia. Cheadle, Reilly, Macy, Hoffman,. they're all amazing and embarrassingly sad in their own way. A smitten Hoffman nursing a man-crush on Wahlberg, Macy looking at some random guy boning his wife and Cheadle's obsession with finding a unique identity for himself. Burt Reynolds, along with Julianne Moore, give the film's best performance. Looking at a stone-faced Reynolds calling the shots while another man was giving it hot and heavy to his wife Amber was deeply unsettling. There's also this unexpectedly touching moment when Graham asks Amber if she can call her mother.  

The film is an out and out tribute to Scorsese, right? From the long tracking shots to the great use of music, there were many elements which kept reminding me of films by Scorsese. The final scene was clearly Diggler doing a Jake LaMotta, who himself was doing a Brando from On the Waterfront. Boogie Nights is a story of a Raging Bull alright. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Saying Wes Anderson films are divisive is putting it lightly. I felt Life Aquatic was a very self-indulgent, but I probably would have enjoyed the same film on another day. I still don't know how it ends and I frankly don't care to revisit it just yet. It tested my patience and I will try to watch it after I am done watching the rest of his works. Tenenbaums, my first Anderson film, was a delight and I loved it so much. What boggles me is how some people dislike such a densely written, straightforward comedy. So going in with a 50/50 record, I really wanted Moonrise to work. And work it did.

Moonrise shows us many kinds of love: a) the old, withering love - searching for reasons to be together b) the unrequited love and c) a newly blossoming love. Two unusually broken outcasts with no one else to turn to, Sam and Suzy are provided with compelling reasons to be together. Corresponding for a few months through letters, they don't stand on ceremonies when they meet each other for the first time since the first time. One is running away from the family she hates while the other has no family to hate. With the prospect of being institutionalized not too enticing and that of being together dimming, they are left with very few options. There's a degree of sense in their absurdities, even when they are ready to jump off a Church bell tower.

It's very funny and original. The tree house perched on the peak, kids ganging up against Sam and then coming to his rescue, Schwartzman's Cousin Ben, Sam getting struck by a thunder.. it is clear anything can happen in Anderson's fantasy world. He makes these fairy-tale films. I guess it's just me but it often reminded me of Prisoner of Azkaban. It must be the music sung by church choir, the kids and the cold, stormy setting. The pre-existing music chosen and the score composed by Desplat made this the best sounding film of the year thus far.

I really want to live in the world of Moonrise Kingdom. This is probably the most beautiful film about young lovers before they really start thinking about sex. There's this innocence, or the lack of it, which Anderson captures. His characters, the older ones especially, are very quirky. The film's saddest moment comes when Murray talks to McDormand and realizes she doesn't love him anymore. They are sticking together just for the sake of their children and deep down they know that that is not enough. All these broken hearts are mended in one way or the other in the life-affirming final scene atop a Church. There are plenty of characters and everybody wins! Even Edward Norton's Scout Master Ward finds love.

I don't know if children are allowed to watch this film, but I'd love for my kids to see this. I predict a great future for this film. This will go on to attain the status now held by Stand By Me and The Princess Bride. It put a wide smile on my face and I cannot recommend it enough.

Pizza (2012)

This year, Tamil cinema has seen the feature film debut of two products of the popular reality show Naalaya Iyakunar. After Balaji Mohan's successful Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi, it is ex-Software Engineer Karthik Subbaraj's turn to make a foray into the industry. The result is a surprisingly good psychological thriller, Pizza.

Michael, played by Vijay Sethupathi, is a Pizza delivery guy living with his girlfriend Anu, an aspiring horror novelist. Cutting all corners to make a living, the couple are forced to marry each other when Anu gets pregnant. A non-believer when it comes to ghosts and spirits, Michael’s moment of realisation comes when he notices his Boss’ possessed daughter. Things take a turn for worse when he goes to deliver Pizza to a house where things are not as they seem. After giving an impression of a pulpy thriller from the promos, it starts off with a grainy, handheld segment giving off vibes of a found-footage film, only to become something entirely different in the scene that follows. It convinces you of one thing, and immediately shatters your belief.

It’s hard to talk about a film like Pizza and not give away anything of importance. Even if it occasionally dabbles in clichés, the film, on the whole, is a rather well-written thriller. It is evident from the homages to Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer and references to classic horror films including Kubrick's The Shining that the director is a pakka fanboy who grew up on a staple diet of American mind-bending thrillers. There are sufficient nods to Kamal and Rajni as well; for the first time since Aaranya Kaandam, they don't feel like throwaway references, just hoping to score a few whistles from the crowd. But most importantly, the film incorporates all these tiny elements and comes up with an entirely original plot set very well in the heart of Chennai.

The only problem with the film is that its horror elements are caricaturish and fail to scare. Thinking about it, I don't think spooking the audience was ever their intention. But if it was, then I must say they sorely failed at that. The film heavily relies on its twist that it doesn't do proper justice to the tale it is spinning inside the haunted house. The over-confident attitude that 'everything will be alright and audience will forget the dull time they had when we show them our true colors' doesn't help the film's cause. The crowd quickly became restless and were jeering out loud. Personally, I am not a fan of the ending, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's the aspect that impresses most people. In its attempt to finish things off with a bang, it goes for something one would expect to see in short films made by high-school students. But I guess it is necessary to drive home the point of Karma.

Craft-wise, the film is very neat. The cinematography has to be commended. A major scene takes place inside a dark bungalow with a torch being the only source of light. Even if the direction is not taut enough to hold the audience's attention during that scene, the beautiful lighting salvages the moment. The sound design was much talked about and is pretty decent as well. Santhosh Narayanan's moody, atmospheric score is a highlight. I have become a fan of Vijay Sethupathi. After being a part of Sundarapandian, which had the best ensemble performance in a Tamil film in recent times, he is back to playing the leading man, and he does it rather well. The film rests on his performance and he manages to pull it off.

Sure, it could have been cleverer. Once the trick became clear, I had a wide smile on my face; but the exposition that followed was way too long and detailed. It went on and on, feeding the audience on every last bit of information. In spite of its see what I did there? smugness, the film more or less wins you over. The film passes through a dry patch but the final payoff more than makes up for it. It doesn't demand a second viewing but it wouldn't hurt to watch it again. Keyser Söze would be proud.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Maattrraan (2012)

For a film with such a promising first half, Maattrraan is a big disappointment. Despite being stuffed with content, the film is let down by a relentlessly overlong second act and a downright awful climax.

Suriya plays Akhilan and Vimalan, conjoined twins born to a scientist/genetic engineer Father who runs a multi-million dollar health drink company. Vimalan is the ideological son who reads works of Bharathiyaar and Marx, and talks about labour injustice. Akhilan, on the other hand, drinks, flirts and pisses in flower pots. The twins are inseparable as they are joint by the waist and share a heart, which beats for Anjali (Kajal Aggarwal). The quick success of Energion baffles the industry players and everyone is desperate to find out the secret ingredient, no matter what it takes. Trouble arrives when the twins find themselves in the midst of this.

The first act is largely entertaining. The first fight happens in an amusement park and takes place very deep into the movie. The sight of two conjoined-twins fighting off a dozen goons, clubbed with the sense of impending peril, made that one of the best sequences in the film. By that point, you root for them so much that every punch resonates emotionally. I was surprised by how moved I was around the halfway mark. I must confess I got teary eyed at one particular moment and that has almost never happened watching a Tamil film.

The film gets a few things right by sticking to a linear narrative structure, but the second half is a big chore, no matter how you look at it. There's not an ounce of suspense and everything that you see here doesn't matter at all. It becomes very evident how things are eventually going to pan out, but we are made to sit through a very long, pointless exposition. It starts taking itself too seriously, talking about world-ending consequences, and loses the good impression it managed to create. The film spends a good 90 minutes trying to fit a missing piece in the puzzle when you already see the bigger picture bright and clear.

I admired how the film was working very well within the framework of its small scale. Then out of nowhere, the crew decides to pack its bags and go to some Soviet country, because why not. One thing filmmakers don't seem to get is how audience find it hard to believe that lives of millions are in the hands of the protagonist. The direction and production value aside, Indian actors have to try harder to break the mold and appear convincingly important and capable in an international milieu. The higher the stakes, the harder it gets to pull it off. The same happened with Dasavatharam, and most recently with Thaandavam. Due to this, the entire episode taking place in Ukvania (!), in spite of being logically sound, hangs like a stump to the rest of the film.

The last song in the film, which doesn't even sound good to be honest, comes at a point where the movie's pace has sagged to its slowest and a relatively important character has died. In spite of mocking himself as a director who places a musical number right after the death of a prominent character, it is evident from this that K.V. Anand hasn't really learnt much. One more thing that bugged me was how Akhilan becomes a Judge Dredd like character, killing people off remorselessly. Don't tell me he is taking out the trash, 'cause he's not.

The final scene left much to be desired, but performance-wise, Sachin Khedekar stood out as the twin's father. Suriya has clearly put in a lot of effort and is very earnest. The person who dubbed for Kajal Aggarwal deserves a special mention. On the whole, Maattrraan is a wasted opportunity, failing to capitalise on its entertaining first act. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly is set in a place of great significance at a very critical point of time. While the nation as a whole suffered from the Great Recession, the residents of New Orleans had it worse. After being in the eye of the costliest natural disaster in the history of America, the post-Katrina Orleanians had to rebuild their lives when unemployment was rampant and the economy was in such a bad shape. Like 9/11 before it, this particular period is likely to become fodder for many more movies. While the zeitgeisty Up In The Air focused on the immediate impact of depression on the working class Americans, Killing Them Softly brings out the plight of a significant but an under-represented industry: organized crime.

The glorious aura surrounding gangsters doesn't shine bright here, with mobsters scraping for pennies- literally nicking dollar bills meant for waitresses off restaurant tables. People are shooting off each other on the streets, and the movie doesn't even bother to slow down and take a moment to dwell over it. Like any great gangster film would tell us, the success lies in humanizing these larger than life characters. You may not know someone like them, but you believe they must exist somewhere. They take pills before they go do their job and they haggle over prices. I hate to drag it into this conversation, but unlike Pulp Fiction which hit you with quotable one-liners beat after beat after beat, characters in the world of Killing Them Softly never once come across as smartass goons. The film lets them take their own time to deliver the goods, even as they slip in and out of delirium.

I liked Scoot McNairy's character a lot. I am not one of those people who prefer their gangsters in terms of how less evil they are. I am not expecting him to change his ways.  Even if the act of killing makes him flinch, you got to do what you got to do. My problem with the film is how Gandolfini's New York Mickey did little to alter the course of the story. It was great to see my Caporegime Tony Soprano doing what he does best, but his musings about marital unhappiness and an impending jail term, while adding its two cents to the 'humanizing' jar, is almost insignificant in the scheme of things. Maybe that's the point. 

When the film so explicitly refers to the economic meltdown and the hope offered by a person who promises to fix things, I cannot help but wonder if there's a subtext I am missing. I promised myself I wouldn't talk about what others wrote in their reviews and, of late, I haven't even been reading others' before I published my own first. But I did read a few interesting ones, with one grabbing my attention as it tried to match the characters of the film with their respective entities in the American politics. The three people committing the heist represent the financial institutions which robbed the system black, all the while knowing that the blame would ultimately fall on the person in-charge of running the system, thanks to his reputation. In spite of his cynicism and utter disregard for everything Obama promises, Cogan may just be him- an enforcer and a supposed harbinger of change. Yeah, I am talking out of my ass.

Andrew Dominik's "anti-thriller" noir slowly grew on me. It also made me realize how truly great his previous film is. More thoughts after a second viewing.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Butter (2012)

Butter is a delightful little comedy that has most of its best jokes in the trailer but still manages to make you smile throughout. It is set around a 'Mastery in Butter Sculpting' competition which is very popular in Iowa. I just found out the competition has been a staple event at the Iowa State Fair for close to a century. Veteran sculptor Bob Pickler wants out but his much feared wife Laura is in no mood to give up just yet. There's a new kid in town with a knack for sculpting and more trouble arrives in the Pickler household in the form of a stripper. What follows is a surprisingly entertaining hour of satirical humor leading to a mushy climax.    

Destiny is a foster child who lives out of a suitcase in all her homes in the hope that her real mother would turn up. She is unbelievably good at things and doesn't give herself any credit for it. Her latest foster parents are quite surprised when she decides to take up a traditionally redneck vocation. Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone play her immensely likable foster parents who suddenly add a warmth to the film, making it even more palatable. 

As a political satire, the film pits a typically God-loving, semi-racist, conspicuously Republican Laura against a young African-American kid who has a way with words. Geddit? There's a dinner table scene, which later gets sculpted into butter, that reminded me of American Beauty. I suspect that was an intended nod.

The language is wonderfully profane, with most of the quickfire curses flying out from the pretty mouths of Garner and Wilde. Comedies usually stage a huge setup around sex scenes, but Butter takes you by surprise on more than one occasion with the unlikeliest of people getting intimate with each other.

One doesn't have to look closer to see that the film has many problems. Bob hooking up with Brooke (Wilde) makes sense and the narrative flow leads up to it, but Laura doing it with her one time flame Boyd Bolton was completely out of place. I am not justifying Bob's actions and condemning Laura's; it's just that whatever she did was not to get back at Bob but to use Boyd's services and get back at Destiny. Kaitlen Pickler, played Ashley Greene, has a half-baked character and goes nowhere. She's a typical teenager who hates her family but that's not the issue. Her little experimental fling with the stripper Brooke is, shall we say, pointless. Wait, what? I cannot believe I am complaining about the hot, girl on girl action. Never mind.

Wilde is a firecracker as the stripper Brooke; she is the funniest even though her character hangs very loosely to the story. The Jackman cameo, which is what it is, felt a tad inapposite as well. Actually, most of the actors felt underutilized as they didn't get enough screen-time. It always gets problematic when kids act like grown-ups. Destiny is a cool kid and all that but the final scene, with her advising Laura, was way too cheesy, or should I say, buttery.

The film's strength is its short run-time. At a little over 80 minutes, the film opens up quick, makes you chuckle and sometimes laugh, and wraps up before you worry about its problems. It is necessary for me to address these problems but I honestly didn't care much for them. I had a lot of fun watching it.  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Thaandavam (2012)

In the film's opening moments, a series of blasts rip through Central London. A news reporter calls it “the biggest terrorist attack in UK since 9/11”. It is followed by a scene highly reminiscent of Collateral, where a Cab driver drops a ride and waits for him to return. A body falls from the building on top of a waiting car. What was supposed to be a critical moment is savagely muffled by shamelessly hoping to get a laugh out of it. It's sad how entire scenes are built around one-liners which are tragically unfunny.  The entire film is filled with moments like these where the little bit of seriousness is chucked out a window by juxtaposing it with something absurd.

I didn’t buy the whole 'Echolocation' theory. Just to be sure, I took a look at the actual videos of visually challenged people who have practiced this technique. It may help the person to walk around and live independently but the kind of things the protagonist is able to perform is simply ridiculous. Had they at least set a framework regarding the activities he can and cannot do, it would have been easier to accept this. He runs, fights, kills just like normal people. What's more unbelievable is how MI6 agents are so inept, they cannot save themselves from a blind person. 

The premise is absurd as it is, without adding the whole gimmicky 'Echolocation' concept. Gimmicky is fast becoming my favorite word to describe Tamil films. All these writers are scavenging for one interesting plot point and then build an entire film around it using the same old, hackneyed elements. So an Indian scientist invents a bomb which cannot be traced by metal detectors. He designs a Do-It-Yourself 'flowchart' so any one learns to assemble the bomb. He is soon found dead under mysterious circumstances and this flowchart goes missing. There's so much bickering about how some operative in India is planning to send the flowchart to some International terrorist organization through Led Ex courier services. I mean, hello, whatever happened to email? When a blast of this magnitude has killed over a thousand people and MI6 is apparently involved in a major cover-up, is it too much to expect the ramifications to be mentioned? 

It is about time we had movies where flashbacks, however unnecessary, were more organically infused to the narrative. I believe I am not spoiling anything as almost all of this is pretty damn evident from the trailer. At relatively important junctures, we are made to watch a story about how he met his wife. She plays an ophthalmologist but is not even able to guess what her husband’s designation could be. Why would a person form South India go and work in Delhi Police as a sub-inspector?  They were hoping for it to be cute and all that, but meh. Though I must confess I thought a couple of scenes with Anushka were the most entertaining in the entire film. But the problem is that they didn't even belong there. Apart from bringing the actual plot to a complete standstill, the back-story added little depth to his motives. Even the revenge he is seeking is out of a misplaced sense of justice. 

Vikram is deeply sincere as always. He tries to bring a lot to his performance but is let down by the preposterousness surrounding him. The pacing is very slow and there's not an ounce of thrill to be found anywhere. The audience at my screening didn't clap or whistle even once and that's something you don't see happen for a film starring such a popular actor. Truth be told, there are hardly any moments where you fear for any of the characters. Amy Jackson and Anushka were rather decent in spite of playing characters that are not the brightest of bulb in the box. I’m not even going to get into how all the characters keep running into each other in the city of London. The twists are weak and you can see them coming from miles away. The actual revenge plot wouldn't have taken more than 30 minutes of runtime. Most of the scenes meander around the women in the film trying to fall for Vikram's character. It comes down to whether the film is entertaining and it is definitely not.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bernie (2012)

One thing that's most fascinating about Bernie is how people are capable of looking at law and justice in a different way when the victim is a much hated person and the perpetrator is someone they love. What Bernie did was clearly wrong, even if it was committed in the heat of the moment. It was weird and a little funny to see the residents of the town trying their best to offer a convincing reason for his actions. And it's not just them, even I didn't realize the gravity of his act because I simply couldn't take anymore of what was happening on screen. The killing happened at a point where I was completely bored and wondered why this film even got made. It's not just poor Bernie suffering at Mrs. Nugent's expense; I was having a terrible time myself. Something significant had to happen and quick.

Is an autopsy conducted even when old people die? If not, Bernie could have gotten away with it very easily. After all, he's in the Embalming business. He didn't for some reason but that doesn't make him a saint, does it?  He bought time by buying the love and admiration of people living in the town. He was already very popular, but just to be sure, he kept at it. But there's no regret until he gets caught. It's good that the film looked at its protagonist in an unbiased way.

The documentary-type narrative was interesting. The film relies on these third-person accounts to drive the story forward. This one particular woman was very funny as she laughed uncontrollably while her neighbor kept swearing a lot at Mrs.Nugent. It's a small town movie where everybody knows everyone. I usually love these kind of films but Bernie didn't work that well. It's not a bad movie. It surely gets a lot better after that one incident. It's just that it's not very entertaining. I wished there was more of Matthew McConaughey. There's this one line where he mispronounces Les Miserables as "Lez Mis-Ray-Bels", which I thought was pretty funny. Shirley MacLaine plays this old lady anyone would love to hate. I kept thinking how much the lovely Miss Kubelik had changed. The fact that the film is based on a true story only helps its cause. I probably would have dismissed the story had it not taken place for real.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saattai (2012)

I am not going to pretend like I didn't just have one of the worst times ever at the movies. I dislike the film so much I don't even feel like wasting any more time on it. Let me try my best to assess the film which has so little going for it. 

Dayalan, played by Samudirakani, is a high school physics teacher who gets transferred to a Government school which is on the verge of closure. The school's strength has declined considerably in the recent few years and results have hit an all-time low. A sense of apathy prevails among the teachers, who haven’t the slightest intention to set things right. Dayalan identifies the fundamental problems lie in the way the school is being run and offers to help. His good intentions are looked upon with pessimism by all the other teachers, with the Asst. Head Master going to the extent of calling him his sworn enemy for disturbing the status-quo. 

There’s no denying the film has good intentions; it tries to point out all the issues which plague a small town government school in India. But it fails at doing it with subtlety and comes across as tediously preachy. It very quickly overwhelms with its barrage of advises on how to understand students better. It turns Dayalan into a messiah of change by showing every other teacher in a very poor light. I hated how easily the film brings Dayalan out of the only morally-heavy sticky situation he was put in, by simply making some random teacher the culprit. 

We are fairly familiar with much of all the concerns the film raises. If the intention was to create awareness and bring some actual change, then I am afraid the film has no impact whatsoever. It is just another story of a teacher with lofty ambitions who ultimately wins the hearts of students and then some. Ultimately, the solutions it offers are either all too well known or highly romanticised. 

The only portions of the film I was personally able to relate to were the little mannerisms displayed by kids. For example, no matter how friendly a teacher is, kids never fail to pass comments about them. They don't mean any harm; it's just that they cannot help it. Another one was how kids convince themselves by calculating 'FLAMES' on the back of a note that the girl they fancy also has feelings for them. Unfortunately, such observations were few and far between. And certain scenes were too far-fetched even for a government school like this. There was too much crassness every time Tambi Ramiah showed up on screen. The way his character spits on students’ faces, bullies and beats up his own colleagues was inconceivable. For a film which tries to fake realism, elements like these unfortunately do the exact opposite.  

Watch this film if you suck as a parent/teacher and have no idea what to do with your kid/student. Watch it if you are easily amused. Watch it if you like to be yelled at. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Arbitrage (2012)

arbitrage: noun. The simultaneous purchase and sale of the same securities, commodities, or foreign exchange in different markets to profit from unequal prices.

There are some people whose life is defined by the work they do. So much so that it is hard to even imagine them considering retirement. Robert Miller is one such person. A globetrotting multimillionaire who just had his best business year and appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine, he is celebrating his 60th birthday on the eve of closing the deal of his life. He is clearly very ambitious, having established an empire out of nothing. There are two primary conflicts in his life, both of his own making. Robert lives his life just like he does his business, placing serious bets, pinning his everything on his actions. As the title suggests, he tries to balance his gains by playing the people around him. He attempts to accomplish the merger, while keeping everyone in the dark about his huge financial black-hole. As the film progresses, you realize how deep in trouble Robert is and what he is capable of to clear his name. He is basically cleaning up after his recently committed mistakes. 

Arbitrage, which couldn't have had a more suitable title, is set in a cold, high-stakes world where a wrong decision can result in losses to the tune of several hundred millions and a few lives. Working in a swanky New York office space by the day and socializing at the banquet hall of Ritz-Carlton by the night, these people's lives are filled with charity balls, tuxedos and fake smiles. This is a proper corporate thriller. It often reminded me of last year's terrific Margin Call. I had read a few parts of Ebert's review and also had an idea what the general reaction was. Everyone had noted how it was impossible for them to not root for Robert Miller. Add my name to the list of people who fell to his charm. It's not just his looks (Gere is actually playing a character two years younger than he is;) there's this genuine desperation in his actions. He apologizes a lot and always gets away.

He is really good with his wife. You can tell they are having a healthy sex life. She's what one would call the perfect 'mob wife'. She enjoys the riches, she knows what he does and she doesn't ask too many questions. He also has a European mistress because, hey, his status demands it. To keep his talent-less eye-candy happy, he splurges on her interests. His prodigal daughter and heir-apparent Brooke finds out about the financial irregularities, but never suspects her father. She looks up to him- her mentor. My other favorite character has got to be that of Jimmy Grant, played by Nate Parker. A lot depended on him with his actions having the potential to change Robert's life. When he is told that he is just a mere suspect, he retorts with, "Motherfucker, I am black!". That was quite funny. And a little sad.  

I wondered why such a good film failed to make any sort of a serious impact. It comes down to poor marketing, I guess. The film's poster is abysmal and uninviting; look at how plain boring it is. The background score is very atmospheric and had a slight tinge of The Social Network soundtrack. It is a very good film. Also, it even holds up pretty well on the second viewing.  

Charulatha (2012)

Every time an Indian film with a very novel premise comes along, we often come to know about some Asian original from which it shamelessly ripped off. I had no idea about its originality when I was watching this film. It was only when I was halfway through my review that my cynicism got the better of me. How can such a pathetically directed film lead to such an interesting turn of events? I googled and learnt that Charulatha is an official remake of a 2007 Thai film titled Alone.  Why am I not surprised.

Charulatha is a story of two conjoined sisters who are so close, they'd stay together even if they weren't stuck together by the waist. Love comes their way and a rift in their relationship follows. One of the twin dies and returns to haunt the other for failing to keep a promise. It has a very decent premise but it tries to do something it doesn't have the caliber to carry out properly- which is aspiring to be a horror film. As it painfully spends its time trying to scare us, it is unbearable to sit through.  Like many horror films, it heavily relies on loud background music and other sound effects to spook the audience. While even the worst films belonging to the genre manage to successfully scare us at least once in its run time, Charulatha fails miserably. It takes all the quintessential elements of the genre but does nothing new with it. There's one scene where Charu's in a bathtub and gets attacked by the spirit, another where she's alone in a lift, one with her walking around the house looking for her pet dog.. these are the scenes which we have seen many a times already. Forget novelty, it doesn't even succeed at replicating them well.

It's hard to look at horror films the same way after watching this year's mind-bending entertainer The Cabin in the Woods. That film managed to put every single horror film into context. This makes many of my qualms with Charulatha insignificant, as I have answers to all my questions but I am still mad at their usage of many genre-based cliches. For example, it makes no sense for Charu to continue to stay in that tacky house of hers after knowing very well that it is haunted. It is not even as if she is trapped there. She goes about her life but keeps returning to the damned place by the night. There's a fat kid and his fat sister who are the caretakers of the house who add no value to the story. Their attempts at humor fail miserably, further worsening the film's plight. Strangely there aren't any deaths in the film, though I kept hoping something would get to the fat kid. 

On one side, there's a psychiatrist trying to help rationalizing even the most unusual events. Then there's a benevolent black magician who goes around catching spirits with Deshi Deshi Basara Basara playing in the background. There's a subplot where he fetches a sacred stem from a tree-top which makes those Amman serials on Sun TV look as good as Rosemary's Baby. Everything that happens till this point is so atrocious that many people at my screening walked out. But then something happened near the end which put all the events into a context. It even makes you like the film a little bit, yet it doesn't change the fact that I just suffered for most of the runtime.

Them being Siamese twins is itself a mere gimmick. They did not appear to be sharing any vital organs and splitting them apart wouldn't have been fatal in any way. Yet the girls absurdly suffer being stuck together for more than twenty years! Charu's Mom is bed-ridden throughout and has nothing much to do except breathe heavily every time someone comes to visit her. She is visibly bored and happily dozes off at the end of all her scenes. Don't even get me started about the boyfriend.

Charulatha is not worth your money and time. Pick up a DVD of the Thai original instead.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sundarapandian (2012)

Yesterday, I called many of my friends and asked them if they'd like to accompany me to this movie but no one was interested. I told them they didn't have to pay for the ticket, but even that wasn't enough to convince them. The promos were completely misleading and actually gave no hint as to what the story was about. I expected it to be the usual formulaic masala action film set in a small town with knife-wielding, lungi-clad people fighting the hero for no good reason. Boy, was I wrong!

The story revolves around Sundarapandian, an unemployed graduate who spends most of his time with his friends at a Nair's tea shop. He tries to help one of his close friends in wooing the girl he fancies. This goes on for quite some time leading to a couple of funny incidents. With Naan Kadavul, I waited for it to open up and go beyond the sympathy shots of physically challenged beggars. The same thing happened here as I kept expecting the film to get past its love story and get into the usual action mode. And due to this false expectation, it came across as a non-starter, working its way around romance and comedy, which would ultimately amount to nothing in the larger story. Again, I was wrong. The entire first half is good at building the characters that at intermission, I suddenly realized I just witnessed the crux of the story with a lot more waiting to be built upon it.

Sasikumar has been instrumental in the formation of the genre we now refer to as CineMadurai. Like with his previous two films viz. Subramaniapuram and Nadodigal, the prominent aspect here is friendship and betrayal. His Sundarapandian is an inherently good-hearted person who doesn't think twice before helping someone who threatened to attack him only a moment ago. I noticed how his habitual behavior slowly changed from that of Rajnikanth, who he idolises, into something that was unique to him. The choices he makes and the reveals which happen towards the end only increase your respect towards the character.

The problems which all the characters face are not superficial but have deep moral undertones. Unlike most mass hero action films, the antagonists here cannot be color coded as black or even grey, for that matter. They all have strong motives developed due to situational crisis and misunderstandings. We have come to expect the Fathers in the Tamil films to be completely unreasonable, never listening to their children's wishes. So when we have rational parents taking sense for a change, it was hard not to be amazed. Certain aspects of the film even reminded me of Devar Magan and A Separation.

Just when you think it is about to get predictable, you are surprised when things take a turn avoiding cliches at every corner. It is very well written with tiny elements which initially appeared insignificant coming to play at a later stage (this doesn't happen often in Tamil films.) The dialogues are largely effective, be it light-hearted or emotional, never once sounding preachy. Many lines, most of them spoken by Soori, and mannerisms were genuinely funny. The acting was consistent throughout with almost everyone doing a decent job. The casting of Lakshmi Menon as the lead actress deserves a special mention. Surprisingly, the songs aren't bothersome and are used rather effectively. The climax was excellent and I had no idea how things would eventually pan out. It is a complete entertainer which had me hooked throughout. After all, this is the first time I applauded at the end of a Tamil film since Aaranya Kaandam. It is almost that good.

This industry is so starved for good films that we jump to laud every semi-decent effort that comes our way. That's not the case with this film. Sundarapandian gets too many things right- an unprecedented feat in Tamil cinema. Which is why I decided to write some more. I was wrong when I said the story revolves around Sundarapandian. I just realized how it has Archana at its center, with four men vying for her attention. Menon's acting is very good and this is just her first film. She is way more talented than all of those Bombay imports put together. This is how one writes a formidable female character.. not by making her wear a pair of stupid trousers.

The lead character is almost on par with that of Shakti from Devar Magan, played by Kamal Hassan. I think it is fair to say Shakti was a little selfish in the beginning- reckless and doesn't even take responsibility for a mistake he committed. Remember how he quickly blames Esakki for breaking the temple lock? There's a visibly clear transformation in him as we see the person he goes on to become. On the contrary, Sundarapandian has always been a gem of a person. A playful kin, a strict disciplinarian and the greatest of friends. It's the choices he makes close to the end that made me draw a parallel between him and Kamal's Shakti.

I always sensed a betrayal was in the offing. The tall guy must have been deeply hurt when he learnt Archana had feelings for Sundarapandian. It was a little unconvincing when he simply let him have his girl. This issue comes forth once again when Appu Kutty tells the tall guy that he's fighting for both of them. But Prabhakaran deftly manages to make us forget about this untied thread. So much so that when Sundarapandian asks the tall guy to accompany him when he goes to meet Vijay Sethupathi's character, I was sure he was going to die. The final reveal changed everything, didn't it? Was it a conscious attempt on the tall guy's part when he pushed Appu Kutty to his death? Was the instantaneous action so calculated that he knew Sundarapandian would own up, taking both of his known competitors out of the picture with a single hit? I don't think so. But the fact remains he is responsible and lets someone else take the fall for him.

"Kuthunavan nanban aa irundha sethalum kaatikoduka kudathu. Atthan da natpu." 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Headhunters (2011)

Roger is a successful headhunter working in the recruitment industry who moonlights as an art thief. He has a supermodel wife who he views as just another one of his costly art pieces- a trophy wife to make a statement about his masculinity. He's fearful of losing her, always keeping an eye when she is talking to men much taller than him. He makes himself feel better by screwing around with a woman who is in his league. In this drive of his to keep her content with material possessions, he goes a little too far.  

It is tightly written and should hold up well even on second viewing, though it doesn't require one. The problem with Headhunters, which is not even a problem to begin with, is that it wraps up so neatly. I have been spoilt by many recent thrillers where drawing our own interpretation is a necessity. Suddenly, the good time the film offers is not enough and I feel a tad underwhelmed when there's nothing to rack my brains with after it's over. 

Granted that Roger goes through a very bad time, but the end is almost too cheery and upbeat. It may work for people who were, like, totally rooting for him but I didn't even like the guy. Short guy with a huge complex.. heck, he should have been my champion of sorts. But there's something so repulsive about him that I didn't really what became of him. I even did a celebratory fist pump when Jaime Lannister fucked his wife. You keep going, bro!    

The film has that European feel to it. What is it that lends these films such an atmosphere that American films lack? I guess it's how there's equal amount of city and nature, whereas the typical American thriller plays out in a concrete jungle. There's nothing inwards to ponder over. It's all those twists and turns that keep it going. You can also tell that the film has been adapted from a book. There's a lot of dark humor with many twisted characters... the guy working for the domestic security company, the two identical fat cops, the dog which simply wouldn't stop coming back. Some of them must have had a much bigger role in the book. Nonetheless, it is a very well made film- fun and fast paced. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Detachment (2012)

I have always strongly felt teachers must abstain from physically punishing students and find other ways to get there. So when I see how disrespectful kids in America are, I was in two minds. This may be a big stereotype but I am sure there's no exaggeration in those images. Teaching is probably the most thankless profession in existence. Most kids go through this rebellious phase and teachers unfortunately find themselves on the receiving end. One can blame it all on bad parenting but the truth is there may not be a way to completely quell this teenage angst. Also, this may never go away. Our problems may change in form and magnitude but shall always remain. We tell our kids to be more understanding and then go out and commit the same mistakes they did. The chain continues.. only the setting changes.

The job is so relentlessly demanding that teachers are popping pills to hold on to their sanity. Shaking the kids out of their apathy and inching closer to them is the hardest thing a teacher has to do in order to make some progress. But they are spit on, threatened, verbally abused making them wishing it would end when the school-bell rings. Is this relevant only in this particular school, which has been on a steep academic descent? Does the film paint an unfair picture of the state of  high-school education in America?

Henry's belief about the vanity of everything that surrounds us is absolutely true. We are overwhelmed with so much junk that consuming it every time we breathe has become the natural state of order. This makes it necessary to read more and developing our own vibrant imagination. The environment of school can be both restricting and fulfilling. It can make or break a kid and the responsibility falls in the hands of the teacher. For example, the young girl with a talent who is unappreciated at home and made fun of at school. I assume Henry took an interest in Literature with a little help from his grandfather- an old man filled with regret over a mistake he knowingly committed a long time ago. Henry knows that it stole him of a proper childhood, but is still very forgiving.

I saw shades of Taxi Driver and Half Nelson for the obvious reasons. I am assuming the film is set in New York but the place has little significance. Watching Henry help a seemingly hopeless Erica, played by a girl who looked like a young Mena Suvari with an Emma Watson hairdo, filled me with so much hope and optimism. It must be hard having nobody around to care for you. I couldn't of course relate to these kids out of my own life experiences, but I felt for them nonetheless. Unlike Half Nelson, where Gosling's character's habit had serious repercussions, Henry is trying to do good while fighting his demons which are, shall we say, too personal to have any impact on the life of people around him. At the end, Henry comes out untainted, as a hero of sorts, but in a losing cause. I say that because the film ultimately offers no solution at the end of its haunting, emotionally affecting journey.  I must confess I didn't get the bleak last shot showing Henry teaching to an empty, dilapidated classroom. But everything he does comes across as a selfless, good-hearted gesture. Henry, the substitute teacher, is like a miracle worker going from school to school setting things right.

Coming from three dead-awful movies, I appreciated all the little things. I found the interactions which take place inside the classroom very interesting. It has a stellar star cast, but most of them felt under-used.  At the end of the month, the young Black kid's change of heart felt a little too sudden. Brody is even better than he was in The Pianist.