Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Madha Yaanai Koottam (2013)

"Madha Yaanai Koottam" has one of the most notably structured opening scenes in recent memory. If Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" begins with a wedding and introduces us to the various members of the Family, "Madha Yaanai.." instead uses a funeral to similar effects. A patriarch is dead and the wake organized for him is so grand it could be mistaken for a wedding - if not for the long faced men and the wailing women. We get acquainted with the various members of the family - both immediate and extended - and slowly learn about the simmering differences prevailing in the household.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Biriyani (2013)

It's been six years since Venkat Prabhu wrote and directed "Chennai 6000028", and he has went on to release four more films in that time. Most have been a commercial success but none had the warmth and realism of his debut film. Some people just cannot handle the scale, and this his true in Venkat's case. The bigger his films got, the less relatable they became. They continued to have these minor touches that made them uniquely his, but they also became more and more indistinguishable. Anyone could have made a "Mankatha" or, yes, even a "Biriyani".

Friday, December 20, 2013

Endrendrum Punnagai (2013)

"Endrendrum Punnagai" is not a film about the lives of three friends; it is about one despicable, self-centered and maddeningly unreasonable man who happens to have two friends. Gowtham, Sri and Baby are inseparable chaddi-buddies who run an advertising agency together. Due to his Mommy issues, Gowtham has a strong aversion towards womankind and, for some reason, expects his friends to remain bachelors for their life. Due to his Daddy issues, Gowtham is not on speaking terms anymore with his Father. Time decides to test their friendship.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ivan Vera Maathiri (2013)

In the opening scene of "Ivan Vera Maathiri", the horrific incident which took place in 2008 at Dr. Ambedkar Law College where young men brutally savaged their fellow students is recreated. But the reason, unlike in reality, is far more petty. A big politician with a bruised ego orders his men to riot inside the college premises after being refused a seat for someone he knows. With cameras capturing the raw act and cops refusing to intervene, the incident becomes a headline and captures everyone's imagination. The politician's involvement is a common knowledge yet he faces no repurcussions. There's disgust and anger in everyone's voice, but nobody does anything about it. Except one guy.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Notable films screening at Chennai International Film Festival - 2013

Foreign Language Film Submissions:

  1. The Past (Iran)
  2. The Great Beauty (Italy) 
  3. The Hunt (Denmark) 
  4. In Bloom (Georgia) 
  5. The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
  6. Wakolda (Argentina)
  7. Back to 1942 (China) 
  8. Disciple (Finland) 
  9. Omar (Palestine) 
  10. The Old Man (Khazak) 
  11. Mother I Love You (Latvia) 
  12. The Cleaner (Peru) 
  13. Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland) 
  14. Ilo Ilo (Singapore) 
  15. No (Chile) - 2012
  16. Fill the Void (Israel) - 2012

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013)

Arranged Marriages are like dark clouds looming over the heads of self-respecting single people in their mid to late 20s. There's a degree of helplessness about letting parents find the "right" partner, but there's also this sense of inevitability attached to it. Spending a lifetime with someone you know well is itself a frightful prospect; doing the same with a total stranger is most likely to be worse. But it has been happening all around us and most marriages seem to tick. "Kalyana Samayal Saadham" is the story of a girl and a boy of "marriageable age", who are gently nudged into matrimony by their parents.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Irandam Ulagam (2013)

Nearly a decade ago, Selvaraghavan made "7/G Rainbow Colony" which told us there is life after love and how suicide is not a solution for heartbreak. A decade later, he gives that message a fantastical twist, asking us to go a step further in reclaiming lost love - even if a step means traveling to a parallel reality. "Irandam Ulagam" is mostly a populist RomCom in the clothes of a high-concept sci-fi fantasy. It is the journey of a Vinod or a Kathir in search of his Divya or Anitha.

I cannot be entirely sure just how much Selva has fumbled here in relation to that one previous big-budget film of his. I haven't seen "Aayirathil Oruvan", but I massively respect the fact that a director took it upon himself to give the people a fantasy film about our absurdly rich history. The same cannot be said for "Irandam Ulagam"; what it lacks in originality, it also lacks in clarity. The end result is a messy compound of undercooked ideas wrapped inside an incoherent and bloated narrative. It's hard to believe someone like Selvaraghavan has made such a corny film about "pure love" and "all the Universe conspiring in helping a person achieve it."

I like how the film didn't resort to excessive spoon-feeding and jumps right into the narrative, expecting us to keep up. We are introduced to our two pairs of protagonists, living in two different worlds. Anushka is Ramya and Varna, and Arya is Madhu and Maruvan respectively on Planet Earth and Planet I-don't-know-where. Selva uses a modern-day setting just to ease audience into a world which is completely strange to them. The two love-stories, if we can call it that, run parallel before it's time for these worlds to collide. Here's where the abstraction begins to take its toll on us. There are long stretches of scenes which make very little sense. To make things worse, an abrupt and unconvincing tragedy is forced upon us.

We don't know if a portal opened on its own to let Madhu in or if this particular Oracle lady, played by a Kalki Koechlin lookalike, made it happen. The Oracle's role in the Kingdom and in Maruvan's family is never explained either. Then there is a subplot about an ongoing war with a neighboring kingdom that felt severely under-explained. It's also very hard to believe that a world, this world in particular, could exist without love. It's such an incredible idea which is so under-explored that it becomes maddening after a point. The film is only too happy to keep aside its ambitions in favor of love failure songs. I just hope Selva doesn't blame the film's failure on audience's inability to comprehend what he's trying to say. It's a poorly directed film and that's the only truth.

You are not in Koyambedu anymore. Myth building is perhaps not Selva's strong suit and his version of Pandora is a proof for that. The issue is not the quality of CG at all; it's just that there's no visual consistency throughout the film's runtime. The geography and its other defining aspects are confusing to say the least. The sky looks different in each scene, populated with distant stars and galaxies thrown together haphazardly. The flora and fauna looks heavily inspired, differing only due to unintentional discrepancies. The natives are all Caucasians with the exception of our protagonists. The derivative nature of the world is a problem especially because all these elements come together and create something improbable. Selva expects audience to take his creation seriously, but won't return the favor by offering a little more insight about the science. But I have to admit the work on one particular variant of a lion was pretty stunning. Sitting two rows from the screen, I found it deeply unsettling.

On the surface, it may be about a man's search for lost love, but beneath the layers of tacky visual effects, I have reasons to believe "Irandam Ulagam" dealt with one unifying theme: feminism. At the very beginning, we are told that the parallel world, the Irandam Ulagam, never prospered because their people never learned to love; a world where the thought of getting a woman's consent never crossed the mind of a man; a world where rape is the natural state of order. Selva gives primeval characteristics to the natives which sadly seem to exist even today in our "civilized" society.  Selva provokes us to think about the world we live in and how we treat our women by drawing parallels which should have ceased to exist long, long ago. He talks about dwindling sex ratio and how turning down a woman's proposal is the worst thing one could do in this day and age.

Maruvan conquers a feared beast to keep Varna from falling onto the bed of the King, but this understandably doesn't sweep her off her feet. It's still an agreement between two men, with no place for her consent.  She would even kill herself rather than be married to a man (why this world even has a system of marriage, we will never know.) Varna eventually has a change of heart towards her man. There's a crackling scene where Varna and Maruvan draw swords at each other in the middle of their fight with a common enemy. Perhaps that's the only way to solve the menace of inequality. Together. But the lines often get blurred and the subtext doesn't reflect coherently on the screen. Who are those people in black robes who want to create a world with one king, one religion and one God? What do they represent? How can a world that doesn't respect women be revering a female prophet? Is she a slave to them? It's questions like these that keep me up at night.

I cannot imagine any other actor besides Anushka to play the female lead. The character demands a big girl and big is what she is. In spite of being a fairly lengthy film, there are many scenes in the film which feel rushed. Maruvan goes from being a village bum into an invincible warrior of sorts in the blink of an eye. He becomes so good at fighting that the clashes at the end become pointless. The idea of a kingdom which is on the cusp of experiencing love for the first time is all good, but Selva does too little where there was scope for so much more. And he does it with utter lack of finesse. For all I know, thematically, the film might not even be as deep as I am willing to give it credit for.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Arrambam (2013)

If watching Ajith put his sunglasses on while walking in slow motion to an abused theme music is your idea of a good movie; if you have no trouble rooting for a character with inarguably messed up moral issues; if you think consistent logic is not an imperative element in a script, then "Arrambam" is the film for you. You two deserve each other. For the rest of us who expect more, this thoroughly joyless film will seldom offer any of it. 

Vishnuvardhan knows only one way to make his films chic - by populating them with good looking people using bloody expensive things. It worked for him in "Billa" because, let's face it, we had never seen anything like it before. He had the liberty to go the distance in "Billa" because it dealt with people who happened to be filthy rich gangsters. "Arrambam", on the other hand, is a film about a bunch of people who cannot be in possession of that kind of money. The reason is because people in this story are risking their life to bring to justice those very corrupt and powerful people celebrated in "Billa".

But Vishnu wants to have it both ways. He doesn't give up the pizzazz and bestows upon his working class characters a swag life which they could never possibly afford. He has them own cool gadgets, plant fancy explosives, fly around the world undetected, drive Ducatis and own big-ass yachts. Then he also makes them give us a moral science lecture and go all "Rang De Basanti" on a politician who swindles public money.  

Arya's Arjun is the character we are initially supposed to root for. He plays a brilliant computer hacker named who probably owns a special computer with a button that has the words "Start hacking" written on it. Maya suggests Arjun's name to AK (Ajith) because he once hacked into SSN Engineering College's super-protected network and changed her attendance percentage. He is caught with people whose motives remain unknown to us and we are supposed to fear for his life. AK threatens to kill Arjun's girlfriend if he fails to hack into stuff. But the problem is that the girlfriend (named Anitha; played by Taapsee Pannu) is so magnificently stupid that a part of you wishes AK would put us all out of our misery by putting a bullet in her brain.

Vishnuvardhan is a good director.. when it comes to making music videos. Otherwise, there's nothing worthy about his technique at display in "Arrambam". There's a scene near the beginning where Nayanthara gives the fakest performance humanly possible when her character Maya gets abducted by some goons. Are we supposed to be surprised when she reveals that she had been in on the plan all along? Wow. Wonderful piece of direction there, man. You had me good. The style of "Arrambam" is highly derivative and instantly reminiscent of a dozen other movies. A lot of the film takes place in Mumbai, the new terror capital; but unlike, say, "Thuppakki", the city here has no real character and just lying there. But in a film where the characters themselves have no personality, expecting something from the locale is admittedly asking for too much.

Do directors who make films like "Arrambam" really think people of India do not have access to Hollywood films? I am not saying that "Arrambam" is inspired by one particular movie; I am saying that it has shades of one too many typical, dumb American action movies. We have seen those films already and we do not want you to try and fail at recreating the same with Indian actors. Watching you attempt making them is like watching a monkey on a rollerskate. Don't get me wrong; all I ask for is hints of originality in a story with convincingly believable treatment. 

It's a heartless film from an inept director who believes one scene of mass poisoning is somehow enough for audience to root for AK, who himself is misguided and driven by revenge and a misplaced sense of justice. This elaborate scheme to bring down a corrupt politician comes into being after the death of an honest policeman- someone who also happened to be AK's dear friend. He is so overcome by inconsolable rage that he plans to steal zillions of dollars from the offshore accounts of all the dirty Indian politicians. But here's the catch: AK doesn't seem to have a problem that many innocent cops are getting killed along the way. He is shooting point blank at hapless constables who are taking him to prison. How do you expect audience to root for a cause which is reeking with hypocrisy? Don't tell me it was necessary for the greater good. In my book, no amount of money is worth the lives of those nameless cops. Don't give me that macro bullshit when the whole incident was set in motion by something so micro, so personal.

In Ajith's defense, I agree it has become hard for actors like him to break past preconceived notions that his fans hold in their mind. To them, it doesn't matter that their idol is playing a character who holds an iron box a few inches from a baby. If Thala is occupying a frame, they will cheer. But even if you isolate yourself from the reactions of fans, the movie still clearly comes off as to be designed for those very people. Right from the random opening song, it appears to be playing to the gallery. If you take away Ajith's offscreen persona from the character, there's little reason to root for the protagonist. There's nothing inherently cool about his AK. Through the course of the movie, you don't get to know him at all. He is just an amalgamation of certain very generic character traits.

Without getting into the fuckall climax and the absurd epilogue, let me just say "Arrambam" is as sophisticated as that Shut down button in its title art. Perhaps "Make it simple" is not the most appropriate mantra for the film.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

All in All Azhaguraja (2013)

Well, it was bound to happen someday. After three consecutive hits, Tamil cinema's luckiest filmmaker has made a film that's so awful, its success would result in me losing faith in our people. It's not like M. Rajesh is new to making bad movies. I absolutely loathed "Siva Manasula Shakthi" and "Oru Kal Oru Kannadi", but enjoyed "Boss (a) Baskaran" quite a bit. It's just that none of his previous films have been a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Rajesh has made a conscious effort to make his fourth film different from his previous three. The difference is that it showed a hint of having a proper story in its early minutes. But that's where the deceit lies. It's still the same old trash - only less funny and more unbearable. There's Santhanam playing a drag queen for whom an old man develops feelings. Boy, I wonder if this is the first time in our history that a film has tried to milk humor out of a man dressed as a woman. For the sake of tackling a period setting, Rajesh creates a laboriously painful backstory involving Prabhu which does nothing to make the film better. 

Raja (Karthi) runs an obscure television channel and tells his parents that he wouldn't marry until he makes his channel the best in the market. Kalyanam (Santhanam) is a friend/employee/lapdog who continues to stick around and do things for Raja for reasons unknown. Raja is a total loser who does nothing to achieve that goal of his.. a goal which we are made to believe is what driving the film. The moment he meets the girl, he throws everything aside and inadvertently does everything to sabotage her career. The film is over-written with too many subplots, none of which make any sense. 

I had a minor panic attack when I noticed on the Censor board certificate that the film's running time was close to 180 minutes. That's about as long as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather". With only five minutes worth of humor, you have to be on a suicide mission to make such a long film with so little to offer.

"Azhaguraja" is a deeply misogynistic film which treats its lead female character terribly; I felt very sorry for Kajal Aggarwal's Devi Priya. She is the most adorable Grammar Nazi in the world. She shows her displeasure when Raja sends a note along with a bouquet that reads, "I Love U", and asks him to spell 'You' correctly without exactly being a dick about it. There's an excess of the typical OTT elements in her character, but there's some novelty too. She isn't swept off her feet that easily. She manages her father's cinema and wedding hall, and wishes to make a mark in the entertainment industry in some way. But then something very awful happens. She meets Raja who irresponsibly kills her self-confidence and turns her into a consolatory "housewife". He brings her down to his state and eventually makes her say, "I Love U". He domesticates her, that bastard. 

Performance-wise, Santhanam is decent with his peculiar idiosyncrasies. At least he makes an effort. I don't know if it's just me but every time I see Prabhu, I immediately think of his Kalyan Jewellers advertisements. MS Bhaskar is worth mentioning, but that's about it. "Azhaguraja" is punishingly long, achingly unfunny and doesn't deserve any audience at all. Kill it with fire! 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

I haven't got much to say about Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips". It's a capable, well-made movie documenting a recent, much publicized real-life incident, featuring a great Tom Hanks performance. The film is supposed to be about the dynamics of the relationship between Hank's Captain Richard Phillips and the chief Somali pirate. I enjoyed it alright, but this film is memorable for a different reason altogether. This was my first press screening and I was visibly thrilled, even distracted, by the fact that there was no interval break and that they served coffee.

Captain Phillips tries to give a perspective to the now assuaged problem of Maritime Piracy in the East African waters. As a kid, I remember hearing about Somalia's poverty and seeing pictures of malnourished toddlers. Over the years, this connection got weakened and a direct product of that poverty took the center stage. So much so that, in my head, I solely began to associate Somalia with piracy. What started as an act to scare away foreign trawlers illegally fishing in their waters went out of control when fishermen started to realize they would make more money with one hit than they could ever in their entire life otherwise. 

The pirates continue to delude themselves that they are still just fisherman, not realizing that there's no going back anymore. The fisherman in them is drowned in the depth and all that remains is a skinny pirate with an automatic. Phillips' moment of realization where he thinks out aloud about what these people have become underlines this element.

I honestly don't know if I want to call attention to this but I have to admit I didn't find "Captain Phillips" all that tense. Using Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" as reference, another film which involved Navy Seals in a pivotal scene, this film felt like a foot massage. I knew Richard Phillips got out of this harrowing experience to tell the world his story and make a lot of money the same way I knew Bin Laden was getting shot at the end of "Zero Dark..". Knowing the outcome is not that big an issue because tension doesn't necessarily stem out of the unpredictable. But I was never once convinced that Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips was in danger. This always felt a little too safe.

I am able to recall most scenes from the film but nothing truly stands out like the moment where a shell-shocked Phillips is brought in for medical examination. With that one scene, Hanks sealed a nomination for himself at the next year's Academy Awards. I don't have any major qualms with the film, but I am not mighty impressed either. All I can say is it might have worked for me on another day. I don't know. I am just glad I have one less post in my Draft.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Gravity (2013)

In Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity", George Clooney plays Mission Commander Matt Kowalski, a NASA veteran on his final mission. Similar to his Ryan Bingham in "Up in the Air", Kowalski has a certain figure in his mind that he wishes to achieve. Instead of flier miles, though, Kowalski is attempting to dethrone astronaut Anatoly by clocking more space walk hours. Everyone in the mission command loves him and it's not hard to see why. He is a man who lives to collect more fascinating life experiences. An optimist for whom every insurmountable hurdle is just another opportunity to be able to tell a great story later. So even when he is muttering something as ominous as, "I have a bad feeling about this mission.", you cannot help but be floored by his charm.

Further down the likability spectrum, we have our protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone. She is the kind of person kids in the neighborhood would describe as the lonely cat lady who likes to be left alone. Guys at A24 made a poster with the tag line "She needed her space", which is funny, but not untrue at all. She carries so much emotional baggage that it keeps pulling her down. 

With these two out there in space, and a catastrophe that feels more real and urgent than it should, "Gravity" takes us on a visceral, dizzying and truly epic, one-of-a-kind journey. 

The amazing thing about "Gravity" is how effortless Cuaron makes it look. Being able to hide sophistication in plain sight is the sign of a true craftsman. Form always follows function here and the range of mind-boggling techniques put to use to achieve a stellar vision never come at the expense of storytelling. Borrowing from what Kris Tapley had to say about the film, "Gravity" is deceptively simple. No matter how simple the story looks, thematically, the film is as complex as you want it to be. It's lush. It's about a mother learning to let go and find a reason to live again. It's about the sound of a barking dog or the cry of a baby that makes us realize how utterly lovely life is. "Gravity" is so beautiful I am getting a bit teary-eyed just writing about it. 

"Gravity" did one thing right where I felt "Life of Pi" went terribly wrong. The only people who talk to themselves when they are alone are the scheming bhabhis on Indian Television soaps. It annoyed me to no end that a master visual storyteller like Ang Lee relied so heavily on dialogues. Every time Suraj Sharma's Pi said something, I tuned out. The older Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) is the primary narrator, but the younger Pi often took over the responsibility. Gravity doesn't have Stone narrate it. It thrives on silences as much as a mainstream movie can allow itself to (I hear Chandor's "All is Lost" has no dialogues at all.) Bullock carries the film on her shoulders and sells you those lonely moments in those long, unbroken shots like a true veteran. She says the right things and she says them right. On two occasions, the film uses a Nordic man named Aningaaq and Clooney himself to get around the issue of solitude and convey certain ideas vocally. Like someone joked on Twitter, Clooney is Richard Parker in that scene. 

Sprinkled with metaphors of all weights and sizes, Gravity is a lot more than spectacular visuals. But more importantly, it gives us a hero who floods us deep admiration. In the film's final shots, Sandra Bullock became my favoritest actress. That says something about how powerful the Gravity experience is.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vanakkam Chennai (2013)

The one big issue with "Vanakkam Chennai" is how familiar it feels. It lets off that distinctive template rom-com vibe and it is never not predictable. Director Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi makes a confident debut that is brimming with visual finesse, but the writer in her isn't very assured. Most of the film's problems are rooted in the script. The lead characters in this Rom-com are basically like a pair of strong magnets who are placed close enough but held apart for 2 hours. We know that they will eventually come together and we will walk out of the theater with a hope that they will stick happily ever after. The trick is to keep us invested till the end. "Vanakkam Chennai" is largely watchable but gets a tad tiring towards the end as it keeps finding ways to delay the obvious. 

After getting duped by a real estate broker, two people find themselves with keys to the same house. Shiva's Ajay is the first to reach the house and wants Priya Anand's Anjali to vacate. Since Anjali, who has come to Chennai  leaving behind her Father in London to find material for a photography competition, cannot afford a new house, she decides to stay there as well. A classic rom-com premise. If you put two genial people together under one roof, no matter what their differences are, they soon start being nice to each other. That's human nature. If they fight like immature babies, like they do in this little film called "Raja Rani", then they are jerks who do not deserve our sympathies. 

The film has a light tone and lead actors are immensely likable. The first half goes without any major hiccups, before the film commits its first big mistake. If there is one movie that could have done without Santhanam - and in case you are wondering, I could name a few off the top of my head - it is "Vanakkam Chennai". At the beginning, the film created a rather not-so-typical character in Ajay and wasn't just a banal movie itself. But then the second half happened and Ajay became just another guy who hung out with Santhanam at a TASMAC bar, seeking ideas to 'usaar' the girl he liked. I believed Shiva was funny enough to carry the film on his own, but the director felt otherwise. Thankfully, Santhanam makes an entry only at the very end of first half, but even that's not late enough. 

The character of Anjali is written as a self-reliant woman who is intent on spending her own money, despite having a rich father (we are reminded of this fact on more than one occasion). She is a smart girl who knows what to say when trouble in the form of a creepy taxi driver is brewing. She seeks legal advice to find a solution to her problem in an unfamiliar city. But then, all of a sudden, she is seen kicking the lights out of four scary-looking, grown up men who try to misbehave with her. This unnecessary scene is a) not funny and b) very uncharacteristic of Anjali. I only hope at least female directors understand that a woman doesn't have to wear pants and indulge in violence to pass off as a strong character. 

Shiva has been so deeply associated with spoofs that it becomes hard to tell if he is being serious during an emotional scene. There's a shot in "Vanakkam Chennai: where Anjali and Ajay are standing on either sides of a door and emoting their heartbreak. I honestly couldn't tell if Shiva was doing the best he could or was intentionally parodying other actors. 

In spite of having every reason on earth to use an airport climax, "Vanakkam Chennai" is kind enough to save us that cliche. But it makes up for this benevolent act by adding a few more instead. There's a foreign mapillai character who is as useless as you would expect. Rahul Ravindran plays Anjali's London fiance Deepak. I am guessing he landed the role after Evam Karthik turned down the offer. A general word of advice to young actors from yours truly: even getting out of friend zone is easy when compared to landing lead roles after getting typecast as an educated, foreign mapillai in Tamil cinema. Then there's that annoying visual cliche where characters clean up a dirty house in a time-lapse shot. Anjali even goes ahead and wins the photography competition. I am a hundred percent certain nobody in the audience remembered the contest, let alone cared about the outcome. Then why did the film go ahead and add one more cliche to its repertoire, when letting Anjali lose would have earned it brownie points from me? Did we learn nothing from "Silver Linings Playbook"? 

Anirudh's music is a huge positive and I can't seem to get a few of the background tunes out of my head. Priya Anand looks utterly gorgeous in every frame. But "Vanakkam Chennai" is still just an okay-ish Rom-com that is hard to dislike. It does very little to reinvigorate a stagnant genre. Also, it should have avoided using Santhanam. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Idharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara (2013)

Vijay Sethupathi has proved himself to be a truly versatile actor. He can do all kinds of movies. No, really, he can. With "Idharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara", he has convinced me that he can also do absolutely awful movies. But before you call me a crazy contrarian and tell me to go beep myself, let me make it clear that it is not Sethupathi's fault that this movie sucks so bad. 

Another day. Another new Tamil film with a message. I wonder if "..Balakumara" releasing on a dry day like Gandhi Jayanthi is some sort of a coincidence. Because, at heart, the film is a moral science lesson about the ills of consuming alcohol dressed up as a comedy. But since the film is as funny as a screen door on a battleship, all we are left with is the goddamn message. The film has its liver in the right place but the kind of situations the characters are put in to convey the point that "Liquor Ruins Country, Family, and Life" are laughably bad. As if those tobacco/alcohol disclaimers before every film weren't enough. 

Sethupathi  plays Kumar, who in the words of Kumudha, the girl he fancies, is a "love 'kum eve-teasing 'kum vidhiyasam theriyathavan". He calls himself Sumaar Moonji Kumar because some people apparently find that funny. Ashwin plays Bala, a bad boyfriend in the eyes of his demanding girlfriend Renu and an inept employee in the eyes of his tasking boss. That the film blames alcohol for their behavior and not because they are simple, old-fashioned jerks is what I just don't get. Sure, Sethupathi's Kumar is way too likable to fault, but even he goes overboard with his "loosu paiyan" act. 

Saying Writer-Director Gokul's screenplay is all over the place is putting it lightly. A film like "..Balakumara" which follows multiple storylines should be like a house of cards. You take out a single card and the structure is just not the same anymore. A sum of its parts. One could chop entire storylines here and still not miss much. It would still remain the same appalling movie. You just know that paths would eventually cross but there's no joy in watching all these stories connect to each other. 

All I wanted was to see more of Sethupathi. He doesn't get much to play with but he still does everything to lighten up his portions. Humor is subjective and all that but I was completely taken aback by how embarrassingly unfunny this film was. I haven't seen "Va Quarter Cutting" but I did hear some horror stories from people who did. Kumar's search for alcohol in the middle of the night is reminiscent of the former film. 

The other plots in the film include a couple expecting their first child and a wife who has her husband killed by two people who are smitten with her. Why the film even needed a murder mystery is a bigger mystery to me. There's a dead man sitting inside a Tasmac bar and the attitude of people who have something to do with it is so uncharacteristic. In one scene you see the film going all grim during an accident and, moments later, the music is back to its jumpy self. There's even a love failure song which Sethupathi dances to. The jarring tonal shifts belittle the tragedy that the characters are trying to avoid. Nothing is sacred and everything is expendable in the name of comedy. 

I had such a horrible time I regularly contemplated walking out of the movie. But then again, I didn't want to be the guy who walked out of a "Vijay Sethupathi" film. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Raja Rani (2013)

Since most people have made up their mind and are going to watch this film anyway, I'm going to indulge myself and get occasionally spoilery here. 

Flash news: There is life after love.

I can see why everyone is truly loving "Raja Rani" or is at least willing to give it a free pass. I really do. It is an easy film to like. It is a very good looking film filled with some very good looking people. I will totally understand if you say you felt nice watching it. We are so bereft of such movies that people have instantly lapped it up without thinking twice. Even some random movie in Hindi, like, say "Kismat Konnection", has amazing production value. It makes me jealous how Hindi film industry has reached a place where pretty, instagrammed visuals is a more of a norm. I do not wish to belittle the film's achievement. I am sure it is really hard to achieve a particular look for a film and I am happy Atlee has made the movie he set out to make. But it is all style and very little substance.

"Raja Rani" is one rare Tamil film with a trailer that actually reveals something about the movie. Actually, it reveals a bit too much, because, thematically, there's little else going on here besides what we see in the trailer. While I appreciate the lack of pretension of being something more, I am also disappointed by how it gives us so little to chew on. One thing I was mildly curious to see was how Atlee had structured the film. I am a silly optimist and I have this tendency to expect intelligent narrative style from young filmmakers. Even though it is predictable, I didn't mind that the film started with the wedding. What bugs me is how lazily the back stories are woven into the whole story. Calling the post-marital portion the "whole story" is not even the right way to describe it considering how little runtime it gets.

27 years ago, Mani Ratnam made this little movie called "Mouna Ragam" which I'm assuming not many of the people who are loving "Raja Rani" have seen. I watched the film only recently so I could read Rangan's "Conversations with Mani Ratnam". I am the guy who had a major problem with Mouna Ragam's railway station climax. For all I know, Mani Ratnam was the first Indian filmmaker to use the now notorious cliche. It's just that I had seen it so often, I had trouble buying it. It was superbly staged and had Revathy saying that legendary, "Vetkathai vittu kekren.." line. Now here comes a movie which is so happy to use the convenient cliche and doesn't even bother to at least do a spin on it. It solely leads to the punchline where John and Regina say that which their respective one time lovers said to them. I agree it's a decent line but the setting is so hackneyed that I couldn't really care.

Ratnam told Rangan how Karthik's character was not even a part of the first draft of the film's script. Ratnam felt he had to add the backstory so audience wouldn't find Divya's actions bizarre. Nearly three decades ago, this man had the good sense to see how the film would have been better without the backstory. Now what have got here? A film with paper thin marital drama and even more redundant flashbacks. But I understand one cannot tell a story about "Life after Love" without showing the previous relationships in some capacity. What I wish Atlee had done instead is come up with some more compelling reason for the husband and wife to fall for each other. What kind of a reason is "I want to fall in love with you because I really enjoyed listening about your previous relationship"?

I found Regina and Surya's story easier to like for two reasons. It had Jai playing a guy with "bayanda subhavam" - someone I could partially relate to. The other reason being Sathyaraj, who is unbelievably cool here. I cannot believe it is the same guy who was in movies like Amaithipadai and Walter Vetrivel. That's one of the joys of cinema, isn't it? Seeing a veteran actor rediscover himself at this stage of his career. His conversations with his daughter are the only parts I wholeheartedly loved. The scene where he visits his daughter for the first time after her wedding (why, yes, another Mouna Ragam riffage) and he sees through her act is good because of him.

Regina waiting all day outside Registrar Office for Surya to show up ( *cough* Mouna Ragam *cough*) is all very filmy and I am a sucker for that stuff. In spite of being generally unimpressed with most part of the movie, there were a few lines which I liked a lot. A tearful John saying "Cha, semma love 'nga" after Regina tells him about her life with Surya is one such moment. Another was Regina telling her father, "Nee shave panniko, naa kalyanam pannikren." How I wish the writing was always this good.

To give an example about the bad writing I just mentioned, let's discuss the other love story. Literally nothing is good about the Keerthana-John relationship. Save me the trouble of going into detail because I hope you too realize that it sucked entirely. Once we are told that Keerrthana is an orphan, we learn that there's no roadblock in their romance. Along with that comes another obvious realization that something is going to run over her; the only question that remains is what kind of vehicle it is going to be. It's a painfully forced tragedy.

Do we go to movies seeking a life lesson? Because "Raja Rani" is handing them out by the dozens. Every lead character, even Santhanam, has something heavy to say about how one should lead their life. All this advice sounds like it is directed at the audience and not at the characters they're talking to. Which I suspect might have been the intention all along.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum (2013)

In every Mysskin film I have seen, there has been a moment involving a motorbike and a dying man. In "Anjathey", the character played by Naren faces a life-changing moment where he finds a bleeding man on the road but fails to get him to a hospital on his bike. In "Mugamoodi", Jiiva's best friend dies from a gunshot wound after getting him out of danger. It's a fascinating narrative device with inherent ticking bomb qualities to it. "Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum" starts with a similar moment where a young man finds a person bleeding by the side of a road. Overcome by compassion and compelled by his duty as a medical student, he carries the man to the nearest hospital. After being turned away, he runs into a couple of vulturous, apathetic cops who steal the wounded man's wrist watch. With no one else to turn to, he purchases instruments from a pharmacy, takes the person to his own house to perform a surgery. He saves this mysterious man's life but instead puts his own in grave danger.

A few seconds is all "Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum" takes to create an atmosphere that is uniquely Mysskin-esque. He continues to radically frame his shots but not so much that it ends up becoming a parody of his own style. Soon, the cops are involved and a city wide hunt is in place to nab the aforementioned man who goes by the name Wolf. Another bunch of caricaturish weirdos headed by a person named Thamba chase Wolf for reasons only known to them. Chandru (Sri) is under a compulsion to help the authorities to make up for his actions and inadvertently becomes a pawn in the larger game. As the night progresses, the film divulges little about Wolf's past and keeps pulling us deeper into the whole mystery. As the body count keeps on piling, the film starts having a disorienting effect. It becomes harder to keep track of what happened till that point, and frankly, it doesn't even matter. There's a joy in just being thoroughly absorbed in the tale as it unfolds into the late hours.

Chennai, a city with so much character, has a major role to play here. The yellow lit streets are a pleasure to watch since Mysskin is particular about giving us a sense of place and time. The action unfolds in locations we instantly recognize. From Kasturba Nagar to RA Puram, the city comes to life in a different way altogether. The cinematography is exquisite and captures the light in darkness like very few films have. 

"Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum" works better when we are utterly oblivious to the motives which are driving Wolf. I was curious to know what incident set in motion these events, but a part of me was happy to be wrapped in the mystery. So when the time came for us little piggies to see the bigger picture, Mysskin let me down hard by an extended exposition where he repeatedly broke the fourth wall and used a wide range of animal metaphors - just about enough to make Aesop roll in his grave - to tell his backstory. 

Mysskin has this habit of filling his films with a handful of weird, excessively idiosyncratic characters. Besides using many differently-abled people, he also has an affinity for the absurd. In "Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum", the men working for Thamba are an assortment of truly freaky characters. In the increasing order of weirdness, we have 1) the biker pair 2) the Ninja pair which sits in a corner holding what looks like a Katana sword 3) the bespectacled bald man who appears to be wearing a variation of a prison uniform and 4) the fat man holding a packet of chips with a gun hidden in it.

I have often wondered why Mysskin does this. The only reason I can come up with is that it saves him a lot of time which he would otherwise spend developing those characters. These "human props" are his way of adorning his film with people who instantly stand out. Their quirkiness makes them memorable enough to make some sort of an impact on us. When done right, they work rather well. When they don't, and they often don't, they come across as painfully pretentious. For example, there is a bum here who refuses to accept money and instead points at Chandru and says, "Nee oru doctor". Instances like these kill the tension and take us right out of the moment.

The lack of enough moral dilemma eventually turned "Onaiyum.." into just an action film with only surface level consequences. The only ambiguity arose when Wolf handed a gun to a blind man in the line of fire making him culpable. I found this action of his completely incomprehensible and uncharacteristic. But the film is very nonjudgmental and made my heart break for a prostitute with a heart of gold.

Ilaiyaraja's music makes me want to use words like 'operatic'. It is a sweeping score which matches the highly overwhelming images. The end result is scary and beautiful, and often both at the same time. Besides the exposition misstep, "Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum" is an assured return to form from Mysskin. A welcome respite from the spate of comedies and a pretty solid thriller in general. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Moodar Koodam (2013)

A series of unfortunate events that sees four men - 'Juvenile Case' Naveen, 'Dope Peddler' Sendraayan, 'Runaway Orphan' Vellachami alias White and 'local bum' Kuberan - find themselves inside a police station. We have a Usual Suspects-ish situation on our hands. A decent cop lets them off with 500 bucks. Over several rounds of alcohol, the four broken men share the sorrows of their life and find a degree of solace in each other's company. With nothing more left to lose, they decide to burgle the house of White's uncle Bakthavathsalam. With a seemingly foolproof plan set in place, the men reach their destination. But the film's title has us believe that they are a bunch of filtered fools. So nothing can go right, right? Right. What was supposed to be an in-out robbery inadvertently turns into a hostage situation and series of revelations follow. 

Moodar Koodam, directed by Naveen, is a heist gone wrong film. It starts off decently, but the narrative quickly goes to the dogs. The film shows us a backstory for most of the principal characters, where we see what brought them to this point in life. Besides heavily borrowing narrative elements from Tarantino, Naveen fails to understand why those chapters worked in the first place in films like Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill. Instead of taking the story forward, the flashbacks, here, bring the narrative to a grinding halt. Every time a title card indicating a flashback for one of the characters got displayed, some at the most inopportune moments, the audience at my screening understandably let out an exasperated groan. The style became very painful after a point. 

Most of the film takes place inside one room in the bungalow. With every couple of passing scenes, the number of people in the room which houses the members of the family keeps getting increased. The film introduces way too many characters who kill you with their painful quirkiness. There's a North Madras gang, a Dawood Ibrahim gang, a Seth moneylender along half a dozen more unmemorable characters. The one supporting character which works to the film's benefit is that of a little girl who picks up the phone when Bakthavathsalam calls his personal muscle. The film could have used more of her. I loved that kid. 

The tone of violence in most Tamil films is often over the top and unrealistic. Fortunately or unfortunately, this gives those filmmakers the liberty to fill their films with lots of it, while not affecting their character's character. But once a director is capable enough of staging realistic violence, he/she automatically becomes responsible for the actions of her characters. The violence in Moodar Koodam is affectingly real for most parts, but director Naveen uses it excessively. Naveen and his fellow goons are unflinchingly brutal and do not discriminate between their victims, who range from helpless children to women to middle aged men. I don't mind the violence per se. My problem is with how the film paints this despicable assortment as "heroes". How could they expect us to root for a person who slaps a child hard across the face? 

The film is completely befuddled about how it wants the viewers to see its protagonists. I don't want to compare Soodhu Kavvum to this embarrassment, but for the want of a better analogy, I am left with no other option. I love the members of the 'kednaping' gang from Soodhu Kavvum because, despite their illegal methods, they are still immensely likable. But here, these thieves glorify/fashion themselves as wronged people who are taking back what is theirs. There's a lot of a dialogue-baazi about 'survival of the fittest' reeking with misplaced sense of morals. There's some anti-establishment angst about rich keep getting richer, while the poor stay poor. Merely dropping a line about how Bakthavathsalam duped many people of their money is not enough justification to make us deem the violence necessary here. Just a single token act of charity to save a housemaid's critically ill daughter at the end is not enough to bring about a change of heart in us. 

Although the running joke about the little girl developing feelings for her captor after getting slapped is abhorrent to say the least, the kid performs well. Actually, both the kids in the family are very good. With no resolution in sight, the film drags on and on until it reaches a climax where all the players find themselves at the house. But this is not a film which is too interested in putting its lead characters in sticky situations. So there are hardly any consequences. Eventually, even blood gets spilled but the film continues to maintain its irresponsible attitude towards violence. The musical interludes are a dud as well. From using classical western music to mexican standoffs, everything about Moodar Koodam is derivative. It is such a wannabe movie that it hurts. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam (2013)

The single most impressive thing about "Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam" is that it stays true to the ideals and teachings of the great Kaipulla-- the Founding Father of a movement which has resonated so deeply with the youths of Tamil Nadu. Following in his footsteps are two impressionable young men - Sanga Thalaivar Bose Pandi (Siva Karthikeyan) and his Cheyalalar, played by the fantastic Soori - who have taken it upon themselves to legitimize his legacy and live by the ideologies which define their very existence.

In many ways, the two sole members of the Sangam are like most lead characters in Tamil films. What sets these Varuthapadatha Valibars apart is that seeking employment is the last thing on their mind. The film never even bothers to cover that terrain because holding a job is in serious contradiction to their ethos. Their day begins with rushing to bus stand and largely involves waiting for their current crush to arrive. Because this is Vaaliba Vayasu, that's why. 

The film borrows its essence from Vadivelu's character arc in Sundar C.'s "Winner". So much so that if you are attentive enough, you will put two and two together and see through the film's central deceit. Here's a harmless hint: "Adengappa! Adi kudutha Kaipullai'ke odambula ithana kaayam na, adivaangnavan uyiroda irrupaan nu nenaikriya nee?" Most of Ponram's work is spent in laying a careful deception, which involves taking our minds off the half-convincing murder mystery involving the amazing Sathyaraj's Sivanandi established in the early minutes of the film's wobbly start. He does this by concentrating solely on the blossoming love story between Bose and Sivanandi's daughter. 

While Bindu Madhavi coolly makes your heart flutter with her cameo in the beginning, the film carefully guards its trump card of a heroine in a school uniform. When debutante Sri Divya's Lathapandi is finally unleashed in all her glory, Bose (and most of us in the audience) cannot help but fall in love a bit. 

There are noticeable signs of good writing and proper character development here which pleased me to no end. They are little, seemingly unimportant things which Bose and other characters do that come back to play a part later. The truth is my expectation from Tamil cinema is so low, I light up every time a movie does something "right". I know all this sounds very condescending and pretentious, but that's this reviewer's confession. 

Despite its high and sometimes misplaced sense of morality, the film still ends up succumbing to the needs of its young male demographic. There's a bit of that good ol' judgmental female blaming for the breaking of a relationship, rousingly received by the largely male audience at my screening. It is followed by a quintessential "Intha Ponnungale Ipdithaan" drunk-dancing number. Maybe this is just me being anal, because it doesn't come across too bad. 

While there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about VVS, Ponram tells his story with much sincerity. A worrying trend that has plagued many recent spate of comedies is their irreverent attitude towards any semblance of seriousness in the film. The filmmakers hide their ineptness at creating half-decent drama by stringing together a few laughs and making a feature length movie. Some films have even gone to the extent of completely getting rid of a climax. I find this tendency terribly insulting. VVS finds a middle ground and comes up with a climax which is true to the fabric of the rest of the film. It may come across as a cop-out to some, but it makes absolute sense when you realize that Sathyaraj's Sivanandi is the Kaipulla of this film. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Thanga Meenkal (2013)

Unlike Vijay's "Deiva Thirumagal", "Thanga Meenkal" doesn't use cheap, manipulative ploys such as casting a cute kid as the lead to make our hearts melt. It sets out to genuinely win our affections but manages to do that only on certain rare occasions. Save for a couple of strong scenes, the film is otherwise a mawkish puppy which keeps coming back to lick your heart. And in case you were wondering, it doesn't pack even half of the emotional punch of "Katradhu Tamizh". 

"Thanga Meenkal" is a rare children's film with something substantial in it for adults. In a film where the Father-Daughter relationship holds the center stage, I was more taken by the depth and subtlety of the one between the father and his own father. The sense of entitlement a son feels towards his parents' property is taken for granted in many Indian families. That a man with an eight year old daughter of his own still continues to live under his father's roof is a topic which keeps getting hushed in the pursuit of upholding our misplaced sense of familial values. 

Kalyani's (played by Ram) inability to find work that pays juxtaposed with his father's hard-earned wealth creates a stark image. As his wife Vadivu notes, "..kaasu illathathu prachana illa; kaasu irukra yedathula kaasu illathathu thaan prachana." "Thanga Meenkal" is a story of a defeated man who married for love at the age of 18 and has never been able to bounce back in life..  of a man who once must have thought the arrival of his daughter would change his fortunes and give him a new purpose. It is, in some ways, a coming of age story of a 30 year old man.

There are many moments where the characters act in ways that is very uncharacteristic of them. Playing a father who wants only to make all of his daughter's wishes come true, however out of his league they may be, actor Ram often over-does what his story expects of him. There are moments where his Kalyani's over-protectiveness comes across as borderline lunacy instead of whatever it is that he, as a director, was aiming for. The entire portion of the film taking place in Kerala is messed up to say the least. Kalyani's journey through the rolling hills in search of a tribal musical instrument to buy his daughter a pug is an attempt to underline his love for his daughter, but it turns the film into a dull, over the top sentimental extravaganza. 

Towards the end, "Thanga Meenkal" turns Shelly Kishore's Vadivu into the mother from those awful Hamam Soap advertisements who worries her daughter wouldn't ever get married if she uses some cheaper, acne-causing soap. There's a huge drama surrounding the possible onset of puberty in her daughter who is only eight years old!

In a school where every teacher is villainized, the film shows us one teacher named Evita (played by Padmapriya) who is good to Chellamma. But her role is cut-short to a bare minimum. In the scene where Kalyani visits Evita's house late in the night because his daughter would want to speak to her, we are offered no clues as to why the teacher appears distressed. Ultimately, at its core, "Thanga Meenkal" believes a good teacher can unlock hidden talents and set children on the path of success. It tries to distance itself from comparisons to "Taare Zameen Par" by never mentioning the words 'Dyslexia' and 'Attention Deficit Disorder', while clearly suggesting that what Chellamma needs is more than just a good teacher. While he resists the temptation to chastise private schools for their apathy for most part of the film, Ram eventually gives in at the end.

With her crooked set of teeth, Sadhana is like a female Darsheel Safary, but without the acting chops. I don't want to be too hard on the kid and wish to divert the blame to the director for her performance. As much as I wanted to like "Thanga Meenkal", I am disappointed by how it doesn't strike gold while fishing for metaphors in a pond. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Aadhalal Kaadhal Seiveer (2013)

Aadhalal Kaadhal Seiveer is a superb cautionary tale of sorts with characters so real they could be your friends. It is a keenly observed work which truly captures what it means to fall in love at twenty and what could happen when one is not careful. The characters are extremely relatable and the situations they find themselves in.. scarily genuine. 

For the first time in forever, the romance doesn't feel larger than life. Karthik and Shwetha go to a college where almost everyone appears to be in some stage of a relationship. From one-side love to falling for a close friend to relationships breaking down in a matter of days.. these kids have seen it all. The fear of rejection which keeps them from expressing their deepest desires, the unforgettable sensation of getting tongue-tied around a crush, being disappointed with oneself for letting another day go by without making anything happen.. and the ultimate relief when it all miraculously works out.. Aadhalal gets it right on all counts. 

I swear I did not even know who the male lead was until a few minutes into the movie, when I had to figure it out myself. I look at Karthik and Shwetha and see reflection of people I know. Falling in love is the easy part; making a relationship work requires all the effort. Soon enough, the drug named love consumes her and she starts hiding the truth about her love life from her family.. something which she promises her Father should would never. Suseendran wisely manufactures most of the tension from this very palpable fear of getting caught. One thing leads to another and the lovers find themselves expecting a child.   

This is quite possibly the definitive story about the perils of young love in Indian middle-class context. There's this unshakable feeling that these are real people facing real problems. Once the families gets involved, the film takes an altogether different turn. The disparity does not arise out of difference in monetary status. Both the families are squarely middle-class with a typical white collar breadwinner. They are all good people who think they have their child's best interest at heart. That might be true, for all we know, but as viewers, we cannot but root for the lovers to get together. The need to live up to society's unrealistic expectations from a perfect family, the oorla-thala-nimurnthu-nadaka-mudiyathu feeling and the fear of becoming outcast makes it harder for them to accept their children's choices. 

You can tell a lot about a person based on how they react to this film. Without going on yet another feminist rant, I will just say what I registered from the reaction of audience around me: the sexually active girl was shamed while the equally "guilty" boy was absolved.  Understanding this prevailing attitude, Suseendran tips the moral bias slightly in favor of the girl. Besides that, he lets these dynamics play out and leaves the rest upon us to draw our own judgments.  For most part of the runtime, the film walks a tightrope, carefully balancing out the blame between the lovers. It is in the final five minutes that it blindsides us with a totally unexpected emotional blow. The ripples of people's short-sighted actions continue to affect so many lives, even destroying some, and the film delivers a powerful statement on that. Although that might not have been the film's primary intention, it still becomes very thought provoking on secondary issues like 'abortion'. 

Besides being a very realistic take on young love with some really compelling drama, Suseendran's Aadhalal Kaadhal Seiveer is an important film. Sure, the final minutes could have used more subtlety and less sentimentality, but the impact is undeniable.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu (2013)

Sasi's Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu starts off as an awkward psychological thriller before becoming a full-blown balls to the walls action masala with preposterously awesome expositions. It features a protagonist who suffers serious brain damage in a car accident and is no longer able to live normally. A part of him is convinced that he lost the love of his life in the accident -- a girl who his own brother swears never even existed. Along with this unreliable hero with questionable memories, we plunge into this seemingly normal world where things are about to real crazy. 

The film tries to evoke the same feeling in us that A.R.Murugadoss' Ghajini so deftly managed to. It slowly and very obviously leads the romance squarely into the unrequited territory before showering a good dose of fatality on the lovers. The love story is very unimaginative and I didn't root for them the way I did for, say, Manohar and Kalpana in Ghajini. But there's something earnest about its mediocrity that had me grinning throughout.

Inside Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu is a very good movie just jostling to break free. I know how songs are useless in most of our movies, but they are particularly unnecessary in this film. Except for that one song which looked like a compilation of a handful of Vine videos, the film should have avoided the rest. There are moments where the direction is really bad. Instead of making us understand a character's thoughts, Sasi simply has them mouth what's running through their head or makes us listen to their mind-voice. This is the kind of ineptitude which is unacceptable even for those mega-serials on Tamil channels. 

A few minutes into the film, I smugly told myself how I expected it to end; my predictions couldn't have been more wrong. That's the one thing about Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu that I love: it always kept me puzzled about the happenings and continuously piled mounds of absurd as it moved forward. The kind of epic backstory and sentimentality it lends its antagonist is sheer rip-roaring awesomeness. The non-linear screenplay is a huge plus in making the film interesting. Also, the hero doesn't simply sport a tiny band-aid to show for his major accident.. he has deep scars running the lengths of his face. How often do we see that? 

After misguidedly wasting a good many years trying to score big by playing aruva-wielding characters in films like Pazhani, Seval and Thiruthani, Bharath appears to have finally reassessed his priorities as an actor. In Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu, he has evidently worked very hard and for the first time he looks convincing enough to beat dozens of people. Heck, he looks like a mountain of raw meat. Sure, he is lacking in scenes which could use more subtlety but he carries the movie on his dangerously broad, ripped shoulders. 

One of the film's strikingly prominent elements is how utterly naive the character of Liyana can be. She is stoopid (with the double o's, yes) enough to believe Aravinth possesses some special power that lets him learn very personal things about her life. In reality, he is, of course, stalking her like a creep. I think we all agree that no other film industry writes ingenue female characters like Kollywood. On a scale of toddler to a fully formed intelligent adult, our women often unfortunately fall within the range of Anjali papa and Genelia D'Souza in Santosh Subramaniam. But with a mental age dwindling between 6 and 12, Liyana threatens to change these parameters forever. The director himself acknowledges this ridiculous characterization and has Santhanam make a quip about it -- who says exactly what everyone in the auditorium was thinking. My question is.. why is it always the female character who gets portrayed as a complete idiot? 

As the end credits started rolling, a sympathy-porn montage was shown featuring all the strenuous activities the film's crew performed. For the last time, you just don't do that. It is like performing a magic show and then revealing all the tricks at the end of the show. Also, it is plain pathetic. 

Ainthu Ainthu Ainthu is a desi-version of Shutter Island dunked in judicious amount of garam masala. It is logically stunted and I cannot promise you a good time, but I sure did have a lot of fun. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Smurfs 2 (2013)

Where do I begin? It goes without saying that The Smurfs 2 was made keeping in mind a particular target audience.. a demographic to which I fortunately do not belong anymore. My reactions ranged from fighting to keep my eyes open to cringing at all the syrupy sweetness. There have been many cutesy films with sugar overdose, but what makes them bearable is that there's something in them for adults too. The Smurfs 2, on the other hand, is relentlessly childish. 

If I am being honest here, I must let this be known that my six year old self probably would have enjoyed this movie. Heck, he had a great time watching Dunston Checks In and Baby's Day Out. Why I am skeptical about recommending this movie to kids of today is because they have been audience to works far more better than this film.

I have not seen Smurfs in any medium before today and I know close to nothing about the mythology. My beef is not with the characters, but with this particular film that I had the misfortune of sitting through. The sense of wonder which I believe is a must in every film targeted at kids is conspicuously amiss. The lines are inundated with puns which you might find funny if you are six. 

Because God forbid Hollywood made a movie for kids without a message in it, The Smurfs 2 has a thing going about relationship between a child and his/her stepfather. Not to sound too cynical, but this sort of superficial window dressing is not likely to make any impact whatsoever. 

The Smurfs 2 is to the kids what the Transformers movie is to us adults- we are better off without them. Let's nip it in the bud and save our children from more Smurfs sequels.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pattathu Yaanai (2013)

Pattathu Yaanai is an action-comedy at heart where momentary spurts of action are just a relief from what would have otherwise been a full-fledged comedy. The film makes more sense when you look at it as a comedy about the exploits of a bunch of wedding caterers who run from trouble and arrive in Tiruchy- only to find more trouble. But because of the film's "mass entertainer" aspirations, it brings in utterly unnecessary characters, like the heroine or hordes of villains, who add no value to the story, besides being heavily detrimental. In spite of it, the film still manages to entertain- thanks to the one man who has been consistently delivering time and again: Santhanam.

There are just three fight scenes and the film slowly leads up to the first two with commendable control. The first fight comes right before the end of first half- at a point where you really don't mind seeing some bad guys get whooped. I feared the second half would open to a very boring and totally redundant backstory. My fears came true, but only partially. While there was indeed a backstory which was unnecessary to a large extent, it was also surprisingly involving. I was actually hooked and wanted to know what happened next. After a woman gets raped and a child gets killed, a space got opened  wide for some serious justice. This made the second fight sequence work.

Pattathu Yaanai is a dozen times more fun and interesting that Singam 2. I feel compelled to raise this comparison because a) Singam 2 did not deserve to make as much money as it has did, and b) both the films have no dearth for villains. But the difference is that the ones in this film are far more memorable than the ones in the latter. Yaanai is also exactly the kind of movie that could have easily fallen under the "masala done right" category. But the central story eventually took a step back and comedy took the centerstage. The humor now started seeping into scenes involving the villains as well. This is not a complaint, as this move actually helped the film a lot. The film understands that its strength lies in comedy and brings it to the fore. It is wise enough to not take its story too seriously and mull too long over the climax -quickly wrapping the final fight to make way for the actual ending - the one involving Santhanam.

Pattathu Yaanai is the textbook definition of unambitious filmmaking. It is a film which is happy to follow the template a zillion films have followed before. This is exactly the kind of film which makes one say, "Santhanam kaaga oru vaati paakalam." Of course Pattathu Yaanai is pushing no boundaries; but what it did with the comedy, it did good. I laughed; I really did. My question is this: if parts of a 'bad' movie are more entertaining than an entire better-written movie, do we still rate the latter higher?  

The film's weakest link is the female lead character, played by Arjun's daughter. Her arching eyebrows reach for the skies in each one of her limited range of expressions. In all fairness to her, it is a completely useless role; but that doesn't change the fact that it was very unimpressively portrayed by the newcomer. Vishal did good and showed much restraint as the reluctant hero who is happy to run away from a fight.

I have to commend Bhoopathy Pandian for what he does with the character played by Santhanam. I have not found Santhanam more funnier than this in any movie before. He actually gives a very good performance. Nandu Jagan hasn't much to do, but John Vijay and a few other actors keep the laughs coming. There was one moment where I was literally howling with laughter- tears rolling out of my eyes. I may have underestimated the film, but it is still good enough to entertain you- immaterial of your expectations. If you had told me this morning that I was going to enjoy Pattathu Yaanai as much as I did, I wouldn't have believed you. I laughed a lot more than I am willing to confess.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mariyaan (2013)

Bharat Bala's Mariyaan is about love guiding home lost, wandering souls. Starring Dhanush and Parvathy Menon in the lead roles, this love story often gives off this unshakable vibe that we have seen it all before, but it still makes an impact due to a couple of standout performances which overshadow every other aspect. 

I tried synopsizing the story here, but it came across as a really dull version of the film. In a gist, Mariyaan is about two lovers who get separated and are unsure if they will ever see the other person again. It is very easy to piece together bits from the trailer a few minutes into the movie and get an idea about where the film is heading. Comparison to Mani Ratnam's Roja is inevitable, though Mariyaan is least political. 

It wrings truly passionate love and produces concentrated romance. It's a sweeping love story that goes all out to make us root for the lovers. It takes two to tango and the romance wouldn't have worked without a strong turn from Parvathy Menon. She delivers and how. She consistently matches Dhanush's towering performance making their chemistry the film's big beating heart. 

I have never been able to buy the "I beat you because I love you" argument which abusive men are known to use as defense. I was in two minds watching Mariyaan hit Panimalar on more than one occasion. In one particular scene, the hitting would have been wrong had Mariyaan stopped with just one slap. It was because he continued hitting Pani that the scene oddly became acceptable and horrifically touching. It would have been grossly incorrect had the film not considered this act important enough to warrant some explanation. But the film does discuss this, and convinces you that this is how they are and that it is not wrong. 

In the last ten months, Tamil cinema has witnessed a tsunami of films about fisherfolks viz. Sembattai, Neer Paravai, David (just kidding) and Kadal. All these films looked nostalgically at the sea but none managed to create the effect Mariyaan has. For instance, when Dhanush gives us the 'Spielberg face' near the end and says, "Aatha!", I had this indescribable feeling. 

Bharat Bala should have tried to veer his African characters away from being caricatures who pointlessly spray bullets into air and scream at people who are sitting mere inches away from them. But the entire captivity sequence is otherwise handled with surprising finesse, while always maintaining a good amount of tension. Bala pushes his leads to dark corners where he could toy with their destinies however he wishes to. It becomes harder to tell if we have a tragedy on our hands or a happy ending. The tension stems out from our inability to predict what to expect from a rookie like Bala. 

The film is very well put together for a director's feature length debut. The structure largely suits the story but I wish it had tried something more unconventional. I wasn't a big fan of the soundtrack but Rahman's work fits the film perfectly under context. The cinematography by Marc Koninckx is another high point. Though it wasn't too bothersome, the continuity errors concerning the ever changing length of Dhanush's hair in Sudan should have been avoided. Even underwritten supporting characters, like the pervy ruffian who considers himself Panimalar's suitor, manage to make an impression.

From Manmatha Raasa to Kadal Raasa, Dhanush's career trajectory is sprinkled with many highs. In a film with way too many mass moments, he delivers an affecting portrayal of a person who goes from being a son of soil to a stranger hallucinating in a foreign land. But despite watching him suffer through hell, the sight of him killing a person at the end doesn't come across as a moment of celebration the film makes it out to be. I sort of felt sorry for the African guy. 

Pacific Rim (2013)

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is big, dumb and a lot of fun if you do not mind the predictability and cheesiness. Right within the first few seconds, you see a giant Kaiju monster crush the Golden Gate bridge as if it were a 9 year old's science project. What must be noted is how irreverently the film handles a scene which is legitimately a money shot in most other blockbuster movies. It makes it clear that things are about to go big, and that we better buckle up. 

The one most amazing aspect of Pacific Rim is how this is not a battle between Magnited States of America and some supernatural threat. Look at all the apocalyptic movies since the beginning of time and almost every film's story takes place within a short span. Aliens arrive in Manhattan on Monday; are vanquished by Wednesday and life soon goes back to normalcy until the sequel hits two Summers later. The problems, however spectacular they may be, vanish just as quick as they appear. Most comic book film-adaptations are known offenders. Pacific Rim's victory lies in the fact that it has created a world which feels lived in. This is the film which leapfrogs over a couple of possible prequels- where each could have been filled with stories of valour, pain and defeat - to land in the present. By creating a vivid past and picking the story up a little over a decade later, the stakes are kicked to insurmountable levels. Humanity is staring at an imminent end, and, for once, you can feel it to an extent.

I watched this film with my cousin who just might be the smartest person in my extended family. After the first few minutes where the film established the history, he turned to me and said this to my awestruck face: "Don't tell me you like it till now." I couldn't believe someone could not like that. So in the interval, he still remained unimpressed and told me his problems were mostly concerning the film's science. His argument was that he had seen the same mechanised humans concept in a zillion cartoons. True, I had a faint memory of watching something similar when I was a child, but the fact remains Pacific Rim is an original story. I still think the problem was that he was taking the film way too seriously. It's not fair to ask questions like, "Why can't they remotely control the Jaegers when they have invented technologies which let them combine two people's brains?" The only answer I can think of is that that wouldn't be half as cool as this. 

I was a huge fan of the film up until the point where Kaijus were considered to be just some giant beasts which had accidentally found a way to Earth. Them being intelligent species also made complete sense. But turning what appeared to be just an incidental work of nature into yet another massive scam came across as completely unnecessary. The creatures scheming to take over the planet, something about terraforming and dinosaurs.. that stuff just didn't bode well with me. I know we all agree that the film is intentionally being dumb here. All I ask for is why is it necessary for everything to have a reason? 

After living under constant Kaiju threat with a doomsday clock looming over, the people have learnt to come to terms with the impending disaster. While there is a lot of opportunity to milk great drama from the world, the film concentrates only on cancelling the apocalypse. Although an underground market for Kaiju byproducts in a neon-lit future Hong Kong makes sense, the entire subplot involving the scientist channelling his inner JJ Abrams ends up becoming the film's weakest link. It appears out of place and fails at delivering the comedic relief it was required to provide. The science starts getting fuzzy and we eventually find ourselves surrounded with absurd theories mentioned previously. 

I like the idea of liking Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost or Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori, these people with instantly legendary names. The idea of two blonde Russian pilots, three Chinese triplets, a Father-Son team.. a part of me understands how they are "cool". But the characters didn't make the impact I was hoping they would. I don't think I have to say I was let down by the Independence Day meets The Avengers climax. I probably would have loved the final act if I cared a bit more for the people inside the Jaegers. I guess I just stopped drifting.

While there's no shortage of spectacle in the film's duration, the one scene that remains most memorable involves a little girl running away from a Kaiju in the deserted ruins of Tokyo. Watching the child look at her knight in shining armor appear on the horizon is a sight to behold. Pacific Rim deserves to be watched for plucking the word 'epic' from the ubiquitous and giving it back most of its lost sheen. Pacific Rim deserves to be watched for filling one with so much awe that it becomes painful to criticize certain aspects of it. Pacific Rim is unbridled joy. 

P.S. I don't think I can ever forgive Warner Bros. for dubbing Mako Mori's Japanese lines into English.