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.