Friday, August 31, 2012

Mugamoodi (2012)

I have always been apprehensive of Indian films with science fiction or superhero elements. We are not a country with a pop-culture history populated with comic book characters. Sure, we have Shaktimaan, the only superhero I would like to acknowledge, but its mythology drew heavy inspiration for many of its crucial elements from Superman. Our cities are not cluttered with skyscrapers, our roads don't look good on camera, and we cannot afford to spend on CGI because we need a lot of money to film those coordinated musical numbers on the hills of Machu Picchu. So when I say I was skeptical walking in to the theater, I hope you understand my reasons. Mysskin's Mugamoodi looked anything but appealing from whatever little I saw of it in promos. Though he has been an inconsistent filmmaker, I still trusted him to have a vision unique enough to make us overlook the shortcomings. 

Bruce Lee a.k.a Anand (Jiiva) is an unemployed youth, Kung Fu and alcohol being his prime interests. When he is not busy doing the either of the two, he spends his time with his grandfather. He abuses his skills indiscriminately beating people up. Naren, we learn, is another highly trained fighter who is part of a far more successful Kung Fu school. He moonlights as the leader of a sophisticated gang of robbers who use cool gadgets to steal from rich, unsuspecting old people. Gaurav, played by Nasser is the cop assigned to stop this string of robberies. Their paths cross and Lee gets falsely accused of a murder. The film takes its time to open but manages to provide a semi-convincing reason behind his motivations. 

I liked how there are no dead parents, radioactive spiders or power-giving aliens here. To clear his name, Lee finds himself in a position where he can only find refuge behind his mask. His grandfather (Girish Karnad) happens to be a scientist who builds fancy robots which seemingly do nothing more than those we find near Marina beach which predict one's future. His Grandpa's friend is a tailor who creates costumes and other props. How convenient! Together they stitch him up a suit complete with armour and Zebronics headphones broken into two, which never gets used. Oh and there's a cape too, don't ask why. The cheap looking props are least of the movie's worries. Things go more or less fine till the intermission. It's only when he gets into his suit that the problem starts.

The film uncontrollably slips into absurdity and becomes unintentionally hilarious, losing every last bit of seriousness. Almost every scene involving Lee's Kung Fu master will make you laugh out loud. There's a particular scene where he can be seen practicing with a wooden dummy which had the audience in splits for all the wrong reasons. I cannot recall the last time I laughed so hard watching a Tamil movie. At one point, he tells Lee that there is this one particular skill he hasn't taught him yet. Handily, Mugamoodi finds himself in need of exactly that during the final fight sequence. Naren's acting was gimmicky and comical to say the least. He wears a funny mask for some reasons but still keeps showing his face to people. As if that wasn't enough, there's an insane backstory about his past. With that, Mysskin hammered (pun unintended) the final nail in the coffin called Naren's acting career. It was more than I could take.

Much of the story takes place at night and those scenes were shot rather well. Thankfully, there were only two songs, which still managed to hinder the otherwise even pace. The Chennai cops are more inept than usual- a move, I suspect, to make the bad guys look better. There's a scene with Gaurav telling the Press that the Police force is not ashamed to accept they need a vigilante's help to catch a dozen criminals. Well, I think they should be ashamed. There is always at least one weird character in Mysskin's films and we have a hunchback here for no apparent reason. The fist-fights were choreographed rather well. 

Jiiva's likability helps salvage the film to an extent. At the end of first half, I admit I even wished for a sequel. But all the charm fizzled and it was all downhill post interval. Mysskin had to try harder than usual to make the film appear convincingly slick. I am not saying we need high-rises to make a superhero movie, but we do if our filmmakers are merely going to recreate the kind of superhero films we usually see in Hollywood. I will give it points for trying but none for failing at it. It had me convinced that making a superhero movie in the Indian milieu is impossible; but that's not true, is it? If redefining the genre to suit the Indian setting is too hard to accomplish, they can still rely on Kick-Ass like spoofs. When the villain in your superhero movie is motivated by gold bars, you know you are doing it wrong. Mugamoodi is not the superhero movie we deserve; but the question is: do we even need one?

*contains spoilers*
The one aspect of this movie I quite liked was how the ending was not entirely predictable. I was certain Mugamoodi was ultimately going to make sure all the charges against Lee were dropped. Besides the death of his close friend, it was this selfish motive that came across as the main reason for him to fight this gang in the first place. So after Naren falls to his death, Mugamoodi surprisingly shows no sign of removing his mask. He refuses to kiss the girl he likes and runs away like Batman does at the end of The Dark Knight. I mean, the cops aren't even chasing him. Chennai Police is only too happy that someone is helping them out and have no intention to curb this vigilantism. Till this point, this guy has done nothing as a service to the public. He was only settling his personal scores. So I don't quite get why he continues being the நேசிக்கத்தக்க அக்கம்பக்கம் வீரன்-- the friendly neighborhood hero.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Old Aunt from Pather Panchali

I was rummaging through my hard-disk today and played Pather Panchali. I kept watching and soon found my new favorite character in the film- the old Aunt, Indir Thakrun.  I have many grandmas and I notice a little of each one of them in her. When Durga gets caught taking fruits, the lady who owns the orchid tells another how kids that age do what they are taught pointing finger at the mother. But soon we learn how the Auntie has been influential on a highly impressionable Durga. She lights up when she finds a guava in her bowl of bananas. The old woman is child-like when she carefully nicks a couple of chilies from the kitchen. 

Old people constantly crave for attention and need to know everything that's happening in the household. It's funny how they react when they are not included in the conversation. When Durga is accused of stealing Nuni's beads, Auntie walks in unaware of the argument. She stands in the line of sight and keeps asking what the problem is, and nobody bothers to answer her. One moment she is watering a tiny plant showing kindness , the next she shocks me by carelessly dumping a bag of cloth on a kitten, and then chucking it away in her anger. It's these minor, brutally realistic observations that make this film so amazing.

Living in deeply impoverished conditions, she only owns a brass pot, a worn-out mattress, and a torn shawl to her name. I had one such grandma and she too kept changing her residence going from one relative to another. She sings old forgotten folk songs about her problems she faces even in the twilight days of her life. The first time she sings the song, I kept thinking how she was referring to her abject poverty and failed to pay much attention to what she was asking. 

"Those who came after have already gone
leaving me behind.. the poorest of beggars.
Not a cowrie to my name.
Night's mantle descends.
Row me across to the other side..
Oh, hurry, lord of the crossings."

"The day is done.. take me across.. a penniless beggar.
Day draws to its close.. Oh, hurry, Lord of the Crossing.
I call on you.. Oh, hurry, Lord of the Crossing.
The day is done.. take me across.
Those who have not a single cowrie take them across, too.
I'm the poorest of beggars..
not a cowrie to my name."

I assumed she had always been childless. But she sings about people who came after, already gone, leaving her behind. When the song is played again, after her death, as she is being carried away, the words hit me hard.. how she yearns for all this to end. 

Chunibala Devi, who played the character, was brought out of retirement by Ray at the age of 80. She gives the best performance in the film. It saddens me she didn't live to see the film release. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Ever noticed how the characters in horror movies never seem to escape the place of terror, be it a haunted house or an entire town? Don't you go mad when this one guy in the group suggests they split up? Don't you hate it when they enter a dark cellar? How there is always a secluded shack to the north of nowhere? Cabin in the Woods has all the answers. It single-handedly puts every single horror movie into context! It affirms its authority over them all. It is that kind of movie which makes you question everything you believed in. I will go ahead and say it positions itself just two notches below The Matrix and Inception in terms originality and brain-fucking. 

"If you hear a strange sound outside... have sex."
"If an old man warns you not to go there... make fun of him."
"Quaint abandoned property... sold."
"If something is chasing you... split up."

The movie keeps quashing all the genre cliches and even redeems most horror movies which came before it. Horror films have grown so textbook in the years. It is almost expected out of a slasher film to have certain types of characters to qualify into the genre. The most commonly seen types are these: the hot slutty dumb blonde, her beefcake boyfriend, a nerd, a stoner-head and the quintessential good girl. The intelligent part of Cabin is that its characters have more to them than these textbook traits. For example, the hot one is actually a brunette who colors her hair blonde for the trip and is a medical student, the gym-body boyfriend is a very brainy sociology major, and the athlete is surprisingly not a dick. Cabin offers all these cliches a new meaning; it was not for them to decide. 

Okay, now how do I write more without spoiling essential plot points? I haven't seen the trailer and I don't know how much of it is already out there. I will discuss developments which happen fairly early and speak nothing about the mind-blowing last 30 minutes. I was hooked trying to figure out what was happening so I would rather you stop reading now to keep the fun intact.

The world of Cabin is like the house of Big Boss; only the players don't know they are being watched. It's their own little Truman show. It reminded me of The Hunger Games as the people who control this setting rig the system just to an extent enough to get things going and then sit back and let shit happen. The controllers have the responsibility to constantly make this cat and mouse game more interesting. They must also make sure things go according to plan amid the chaos. They run the nightmare machine which bottles everything you have ever feared and lets them loose on you. Yes, even clowns. It doesn't mock the horror film template, but pays an homage to it. 

I am not a big horror fan and I have seen very little. But I know this genre has become stagnant with each new release. Cabin goes all out meta and offers a fantastic story which keeps you guessing. It's funny, it's scary, it is totally awesome. Also, smoke weed; it just might save your life.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fireworks Wednesday (2006)

Just like most people in the west incorrectly consider Slumdog Millionaire to be the de-facto portrayal of present day India, I had my own image of Iran in my head- filled with goats and desert. A Separation was a real eye-opener showing a well-educated, middle class family living in Tehran. Fireworks Wednesday, which released 6 years ago, appears to have been cut from the same cloth as A Separation. 

I think everyone will agree that it worked just fine as a thriller. After establishing the primary conflict in the opening scene, it quickly moved on, peeling off its layers with no intention of offering you a moment to breathe. Even the ending offered no respite. It had me deep in thought for days. Fireworks Wednesday progresses similarly, but unlike the former, it reaches its pinnacle fairly early. I wouldn't say it's all downhill from there, but the tension surely eases.

Our eyes and ears in this world is a young maid named Rouhi, who is soon to get married to a person who is madly in love with her. She inadvertently gets embroiled in a conflict happening on the most critical day of another couple's married life. As the clutter in their house gets cleared, the problems in their marriage keep worsening. It just occurred to me Rouhi's chador was the source of much of her troubles on the day.

During its course, the movie often suggestively points its finger at various characters, blaming them for the situation. As I was in the process of convincing myself of that and beginning to believe it, my suspicions were allayed making me look foolish for jumping to conclusion. This happened with A Separation as well, when I looked down at the maid's husband just because he wasn't educated.

Farhadi's fascination with maids is another thing. My Mom often says this: if you want to let people in your neighborhood know something, talk about it when your maid is around. I am sure he agrees as it can be seen from his films. Or maybe women working as maids is another essential component in Iranian milieu.

Infidelity has existed and shall always do, irrespective of the place, and no amount of religious curtains can hide it. Handling such an issue, especially in a volatile, charged society must be a real challenge. The topic of religion is inseparably wound with Iran. The women fear going out without donning their chador, strangers wish each other with a salaam - these elements and mannerisms which may appear normal to native Iranian eyes stand out for someone like me.

The promise of marriage shines bright for everyone but the love soon fades away. Making relationships work in our modern day society is incredibly hard and most of them end in divorce, and the ones who stick together are only compromising. I hope this cynicism-laden reading of the film's message is not true, but I fear it may be correct. Ultimately, your faith gets partially restored when Rouhi's fiancee comments how she looks even more beautiful after threading her eyebrows, when you fear he might flip out.

I have yet to see About Elly but I suspect Farhadi has made a trilogy of sorts with his last three films, primarily dealing with truth as his subject. This one too is open ended but not very unsettling. It is very good film but doesn't match up to its successor's magic. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gangs of Wasseypur II (2012)

While watching Wasseypur, I often found myself trying to fit its characters into the world of Godfather. Puzo and Coppola's work is so rich and perfect that every mafia family movie taking even the slightest inspiration immediately gets compared to the classic. Most movies have succumbed to this and a few have managed to survive. Nayakan, Devar Magan, Raajneeti and Sarkar come to mind. Raajneeti was unabashedly Godfather-esque, drew inspiration from Mahabharat and Indian political history, but with loads of masala. All these movies have only increased my admiration for my favorite movie of all time. The issue is characters keep switching roles, which may be a good thing. Sardar's death is reminiscent of Sonny's, but then Dhanish shows his shades. At one point of time Sardar appeared like Michael, but then Faizal turned into one. Ageing Ramadhir curiously resembled Vito before finally taking his place as Don Cicci.. the list goes on. Wassepur's success lies in the fact that it offers a sprawling epic that still manages to appear honest, original and realistic. 

Cinema forms this story's backbone. Ramadhir, while telling Shamshad how he managed to survive so long as all his foes kept dying, says everyone in India is caught in an illusion with movies. Jab tak Hindustan mein cinema rahega, tab tak log chutiya bante rahenge. The truth in that line resonates loudly as Kashyap mocks himself. The Indian masses are extremely impressionable and I personally blame cinema for increase in rape in India. Faizal thinks of himself as Amitabh Bachchan of the family but later realizes he's actually a Shashi kapoor. His younger brother Perpendicular is obsessed with Sanjay Dutt and his half-brother Definite is a Salman Khan knock off with a Tere Naam haircut. Like in Part I, the passage of time is signified using movie posters, with ringtones adding to it. 

Many people criticized the lack of urgency in part I which had Sardar savoring his moments troubling Ramadhir. After his passing, his sons have picked up the baton; the Pandavs fighting Ramadhir's metaphorical Kauravas. Luckily for Sardar, the apples didn't fall far from the tree. Each son seemed to have a penchant for the old ultraviolence. New characters came and went altering the course of the story but the goal remained the same: Ramadhir ki keh ke lena. In spite of everything, Wasseypur has always been a threesome, also involving the Qureshi family. Like part I, this one too felt like it was all over the place giving no clear idea of where things were heading. We always knew what was ultimately going to happen. Kashyap could have ended it anywhere he wished to. He only had to tie the loose ends. But he kept going on and on introducing new characters till the very end. My absurdly full bladder is partially to blame, but I kept hoping it would end soon. 

We are told that Faizal is the reluctant son who got dragged into this feud, but I never got that impression from him. When he breaks down to his wife, I didn't understand his regret. Perpendicular and Definite's bet seems so pointless. On the other hand, Definite's first failed attempt to kill Shamshad, another one involving Sultan and bananas, the continuation of the opening scene, the final shoot-down were amazing scenes. It's these flashes of genius that manage to pull your attention back after all the meanderings. Like Hithesh said, Kashyap is so deeply in love with his baby that he kept going on and on. Did it really need to be so long? The 5 hour version may show a different picture but I don't think I have it in me to sit through this saga again.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Dictator (2012)

My favorite moment in 'The Great Dictator' comes towards the very end, when Chaplin delivers a very moving speech. The movie is hilarious right from the start but it was that one particular scene which established its greatness. The Dictator's finest moment also comes at a similar juncture.

I am a huge fan of Borat and it remains my favorite Cohen character. It was insane and I had not seen anything like that before. His journey through US and A hoping to make Pamela Anderson his wife was shown using seemingly unrelated episodes where his ideologies clashed with American culture. Owing to their outrageous traits, his central characters are seldom intelligent. Borat's naivety was almost endearing and the 'Midnight Cowboy' reference pretty much nailed it. Next came Bruno, the fashionista who aspired to be the most famous gay Austrian since Arnold Schwarzenegger. It turned out to be 'pick-up-your-jaw-from-the-floor' level shocking. It was structured on the same mockumentary template used by Borat before that. But I think he took it a little too far. It soon stopped being funny and I saw most of it through webbed fingers.

Admiral Aladeen is someone who sleeps with Oprah Winfrey, Megan Fox, Katy Perry and even Ellen DeGeneres. He executes people at the drop of a hat, makes nukes, has female virgin bodyguards-- a little of every known dictator. He has been in power since such a young age that he hardly had a childhood. I would have been offended by how visually inoffensive the movie was had it not made up for it by Aladeen's political incorrectness, which knew no bounds. He is an anti-semite misogynist with racistic tendencies. In a particularly wacky scene, which won't come as a surprise to us Indians who have seen '3 Idiots', he helps a woman deliver her baby. After successfully doing that, he holds the baby up and says, "I am sorry, it's a girl. Where is the trash can?" There are some funny moments but many attempts at humor fall flat.

This is Cohen's most conventional film to date. The central character does travel to USA from his native country but there's a proper story this time. It couldn't have released at a better time, with dictatorships falling all around. It hits the zeitgeist and takes digs at Kim Jong-il, Ahmedinejad, Gaddafi, Hussain, Saudi kings, and even Dick Cheney. With all of his friends faltering, he becomes the symbol of hope for people who prefer dictatorship (his words, those). Comparing it to Chaplin's classic, the dictator's lookalike does not have a prominent part to play in spite of the fact that the switch-over happens fairly early. But the monologue he delivered at the end highlighting the ways of dictatorship was brilliant, nailing America as the biggest culprit of them all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Art of Getting By (2011)

Why do all ostensibly good-at-nothing characters turn out to be really good at something? I'm going through this phase of my own and I relish watching films about slackers and social misfits, seeking life lessons while I'm at it. But I have almost always been left disappointed. Disappointed that they somehow succeeded while I'm still clueless? Maybe. I thought Wake Up Sid was ridiculous for this very reason. 500 Days of Summer was similar with Tom's architecture thing, but, for once, I rooted for him to achieve success. happythankyoumoreplease came closest to what I had in mind- characters coming to terms with the idea that maybe they were never going to make it big, and that this was it. I'm not talking about destiny and stuff; just a realization that not everyone is a success. The movie turned out to be extremely dull in the end. Need all 'fighting against all odds' stories end with change in fortunes?

George, played by the kid from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush and Finding Neverland, looks like someone who grew inches over the summer. It is not often we see a lanky lead with boyish features but this never came across as a pretentious attempt to be different. A fat, four-eyed boy with curly hair would be it. Some of us like to think of ourselves as very mature and capable of solving crunch life situations better than others. George is one such person. Is it his apathy towards academics that has driven him down? If yes, then what was the reason behind the apathy? I don't recall being so shy as a kid myself, but over the years, I have slowly turned into an introvert. It is not possible to pinpoint something particular as the cause since many little things play a part. In George's case, it could be the time he spent alone with his Japanese nanny in a Tokyo hotel room, his parent's divorce, or some other incident we weren't told about. Feeling nostalgia for the past is good but what is the point when the present is slipping through.

We all have had one such girl in our life where you tell yourself she'll talk to you the next day if you finish that pending essay. No? Okay, just me then. Sally becomes George's muse. She's the only girl on earth who talks to him and she's pretty.. what can go wrong. It's when he falls for her, for reasons too obvious, things get weird. Soon it becomes a love triangle with everyone being guilty to an extent. We have an Idris Elba lookalike Principal who plays the quintessential cool teacher of high school movies. The film antagonizes the step-father as it attempts to bring George closer to his Mom and it felt very fake and unconvincing. By the end, it even incorporates an airport sequence  to the climax, which has been done to death already.

It's a beautifully shot film and there were times where I simply had to pause and take screen-shots. The interesting indie soundtrack did help. There was also something about one of the film's posters that was very Exit Through the Gift Shop-y and I was under the impression that this was a documentary till the opening scene. Emma Roberts and Freddie Highmore were decent. It had its moments but it treaded known waters way too often.