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.