Friday, March 29, 2013

Chennaiyil Oru Naal (2013)

Chennaiyil Oru Naal is the kind of film that gets made in Hollywood ever so often. More often that not, they are instinctively scoffed at by critics. This is a ticking time-bomb movie where characters race against time to finish a job. Even though the movie artificially manufactures a wee bit of tension without doing anything, it takes a tight screenplay to see things through. Taking place in one day, Chennaiyil  features one connecting incident in the lives of four unrelated groups of people living in Chennai. And that incident is an insanely unrealistic task of transporting a heart from Chennai to Vellore in no more than 90 minutes.

The prominent players are: a famous actor who is an absentee father and full of himself, a newbie TV show host who thinks of himself as an idealistic journalist capable of changing people's lives, a newly wed Doctor and a good Cop trying to redeem himself. Then there's the Commissioner of Police, played by Sarath Kumar, overseeing this mission. While it takes some time to kick off, once it does, the film moves at very fast pace and reaches an expected conclusion without much ado. 

In the beginning, the film needlessly disturbs us with unnecessary information like the current time. But as things move on, it finds a rhythm and makes for an interesting one hour. Since it is inundated with too many characters, there are appears to be a lot of loose ends.  While the casting is good enough, the quality of performance is an different story altogether. The most notable problem with the film is the level of acting from the ensemble cast. For the entire first half and on many occasions in the second half, nearly all the actors will make you cringe with their performance. Cheran is decent and Lakshmi Ramakrishnan was good in one particular scene. It's the poor acting that keeps this from being a better, more compelling film.

My favorite pass time while watching a Tamil movie is noting how the audience reacts to the images on screen. Young men down South have a really low tolerance for adultery when a man is being cheated on. I was not very surprised when a lot of people at my screening basically erupted with anger when this particular information got revealed. The feminist in me gets all worked up when such things happen. That this woman would cheat on her husband with his best friend is a very convenient shorthand. The film gives us no insight into her part of the story and unfairly turns her into a punching bag for higher reasons. 

Some cameos are memorable and help make the movie a tad more interesting. Most are adequately used and do nothing to make the film better. But I cannot recall cameos which turn a decent movie into a laughably bad joke. Well, Chennaiyil Oru Naal features a guest appearance by a prominent Tamil actor who absolutely ruins the film. Even though I am tempted to reveal the actor's name, I'll let you find out for yourself. So the car carrying the heart is nearing Vellore and has to pass through a certain Jhintak Colony to reach the hospital. I think it is actually Zinda Colony but I'll call it Jhintak Colony and amuse myself. Now, this detour wasn't planned and evacuating this populated area will be impossible for the Police. So the involved people use the services of this celebrity fellow who calls up his fans to make way for the car. What follows is a hilarious stretch where the actor's fans move heaven and earth to make that happen. 

At the end of all this brouhaha, the film finds a surprisingly neat closing shot- with a blinking Orange traffic light. But I guess the director really didn't want to let us leave with the satisfaction of watching a decent movie. He brings back the actor and makes him give a lengthy speech/advice about how- I walked out. The blame doesn't fall squarely on the actor for agreeing to do the cameo. The entire final act of the film is very poorly written and shakily directed. I can imagine a dozen ways of making this film better. Too bad the director didn't see what he was turning this film into. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Continuing what he started with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's latest handles broad universal themes like equality and justice. Liberty. Vengeance. In his deft hands, they come out alive and fill you with furious anger. Instead of turning it into a horrific Black vs. White battle, Tarantino intelligently balances things out by giving each side a friend who naturally belongs to the opposite side. So you have a White guy named Dr. King (geddit?) helping Django and a two-faced Black man named Stephen working for Monsieur Candie.  
It's a Good vs. Evil conflict and Good prevails. It does its best to offer solace, and is absolutely cathartic and empowering. 

I think we all can agree that Django is Tarantino's first proper love story. There are bits in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, but Django's search for his wife drives this film forward. I don't think I felt as much for his loss as I would have liked to or I am capable of. Indian CBFC removed the critical rape scene (I am not entirely sure since I only read it in the screenplay) and didn't let us witness the true magnitude of cruelty. But despite CBFC's interruption, Kerry Washington's Bromhilda should have been used even better. The present version is exactly like that German fairytale Shultz tells Django about.  

One thing I found very curious was how Django kept changing his attire. Starting as a bare-chested slave throwing off his blanket and picking up the dead Speck brothers' jacket; next becoming Dr. Shultz's valet wearing a suit similar to Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy; suiting up for winter in a Green jacket and finally pulling off the Candie-suit better than Candie himself. I haven't planned on digging deep, but that's so much like Tarantino himself- blurring the lines between homages and plagiarism, the fastest gun in the West, a natural born killer. 

Due to his Morricone-fueled soundtracks, many of his films have had the Western feel. His ever-inventive Mexican standoff is another such element. But Django is his first true Western. The guns are slower but the men controlling the trigger are anything but. From 1940s Germany, he has jumped 80 years back in time and I am curious to see if he'll go back further. The Native American struggle perhaps? I doubt he is making a trilogy here. 

Django is a very different kind of Tarantino movie. He continues to rely on eye-catching visual indicators but this film isn't divided into chapters. The grand, five-act structure is very conventional for a Tarantino movie. It heavily bears all his directorial stamps but still feels like he has deliberately tried to do things different this time. My issue with the film is its false climax. Though I am sure I will eat it up on subsequent viewings, there were times when I did feel the length. At one point, after the death of a few major characters, the film doesn't tie things up and instead continues for a lot longer. 

Is it still necessary to talk about great soundtracks in Tarantino's films? Yes it is! Anachronistic soundtrack FTW! Hiphop has never sounded better in a movie. The 'Freedom' sequence is equally marvelous. The performances are great and all the characters get to ooze and drip with obligatory coolness. One can only marvel at Tarantino's ability of finding humor in some of the most inane or gravely serious things. I mean who else could call a slave habitat, the Candieland? Foxx's "I count two guns nigga!" deserves to be placed next to Wallach's "When you have to shoot.. Shoot! Don't talk!". It's moments like these that make me sad I don't know how to whistle. 

Coming to the controversy, many notable personalities like Spike Lee voiced their opinion against the film's depiction of Plantation slavery terming it 'disrespectful'. As I was watching the movie, Bala's Paradesi crossed my mind. These are two totally different films out to achieve different results. But when a Django-like treatment is drawing flak, why not hold Paradesi equally responsible? At least Django is escapist cinema which gives its audience a blissful release. If we are going to talk about blood money, isn't Paradesi simply cutting open closed wounds and making a show out of it? I understand that's a skewed argument; I just don't see how anyone could be offended watching Django.

Django Unchained is great fun. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Paradesi (2013)

In a tiny village located in the outskirts of the 1930s Madras lives a naive town fool named Raasa (Atharva) who is taken for granted by everyone in the hamlet. He lives on the charity of the few willing fellow villagers to fill his stomach. When a mysterious rich man arrives with prospect of employment, half the men and a few women and children in the village sign up to work for an year. As they leave their village and loved ones behind in hope for a better tomorrow, little do they know that a harrowing future awaits them. 

Paradesi is only Bala's sixth film but we all have a fair idea what to expect from him. Bala makes tragedies like it's nobody's business. Sethu still remains my favorite but Naan Kadavul's ending had this indescribable effect on me. If you walk in to Paradesi expecting the usual trademark Bala pain and suffering, beware for you were warned. Just the thought of the amount of agony the movie thrusts on its characters sends a chill down my spine. This is torture porn raised to the power of cocaine. In this film, Bala is like a Dementor of sorts, sucking every last bit of happiness out of us. 

Just like our body responds to a bleeding bruise by initiating hemostasis, I think the mind too flicks a switch somewhere deep down inside us to protect our sanity when it is subject to extreme stress. After being exposed to the film's emotional pounding and walking through the corridors of despair for 53 days, a significant part of me stopped responding. I grew completely numb and couldn't make myself react to the carnage unraveling on screen. I have learnt one thing about myself from experience; I have a fairly normal threshold for witnessing cinematic suffering. But there's only as much I could take without some periodic breathing space.

When death of major characters appears like just another page in a never-ending book, there's some problem with the movie. I'm a very easy weeper. At movies, I cry at the drop of a hat. But Paradesi and most of Bala's films are loud, where everyone on screen is crying their eyes out. I don't think I have ever wept watching others weep. That's not how it works for me and, I believe, for others. You slit our throats with subtlety or you don't. 

Said to have been based on true incidents which took place in pre-independence India of the 1930s, just the idea of this story is enough to rip my heart out. The tea-plantation slavery is so meticulously planned by the perpetrators that it becomes a labyrinth one could never walk out of.  Every time the film dangles a tiny piece of hope before the suffering slaves, it immediately thrusts something far bigger and further deepens their torment. I could see what Bala was going for and it should have worked and chances are you responded well to the film, but I sadly did not. I guess it is a subjective thing.

The first act is free of any physical pain, and that's just Bala beefing you up for later. It's a happy village where everyone know everybody. The town's head has a weakness for women; there's a beautiful wedding, complete with song and dance; there's pre-marital sex in pre-independence India; Then right before the interval, Bala smacks you on the head with a stick and my heart sank. That one shot (you'll know when you watch it) is probably one of the most evocative frames in our film history.

There are certain thematic problems as well. The religious angle near the end is handled very amateurishly. It kills the film's grim mood and doesn't even fully realize its intentions. Large scale forceful conversion to Christianity probably was a significant thing during that era but the placement of the said event is completely wrong in the film. If it was placed there to lend some much needed respite, it doesn't even manage to give us that. That entire portion is just plain unnecessary. I have no good things to say about the stereotyping of English plantation owners. It's things like these that will make sure the West will never take our brand of cinema seriously. 

The craft in Paradesi is one of our finest technical achievements ever. The attention to detail and the impeccable period recreation will make your jaw drop. The sepia-ish visuals lend the film a tragically nostalgic tone about a long lost era. While the closing moment has an earth-shattering dramatic weight and is something which I didn't see coming, the impact was lost on me. Paradesi is an haunting piece of work which, if it works, should leave you with a heavy heart. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Vathikuchi (2013)

Well, well. One can never tell which movie will spring a surprise, can we? Produced by Fox Star Studios and A.R. Murugadoss, Vathikuchi is Writer/Director P. Kinslin's first film. And what a debut it is! With a fairly realistic story sprinkled with some very rousing action sequences, Vathikuchi gives a much needed face-lift to the age-old Man vs. Social Evils tale. 

The first thing one would notice straight up about Vathikuchi is the lead hero. Newcomer Dileeban is someone who is not particularly easy on eyes- an opinion I share with the film's lead female character. We have got used to seeing pretty faces running around that even an unconventionally good looking person is having a hard time landing lead roles. I think about this every time I see a movie starring the very talented John C. Reilly. Dileeban plays Shakthi, a share-auto driver and he is tailor-made for the role. It takes some to get used to him but his character is so darn likable that he completely wins you over.

There are three unrelated people who are nursing a deep drudge against Shakthi. We don't know their story but we understand they all want this seemingly harmless auto driver dead. Right when I feared an over-the-top back-story was in the offing, the film took me by surprise. With two very good flashbacks featuring Sampath and Jayaprakash and one not so bad flashback featuring Jegan, the film impressively lays all the motives and sets up a strong foundation for the final act. At the end of Sampath's story, I feared two more back to back flashbacks would break my spirit. Thankfully, the film immediately utilizes an effective non-linear narrative to slowly dole out the rest of the story. Maybe it's because of I'm a huge fan of Aaranya Kaandam, but Vathikuchi is so level-headed in its portrayals that even during the climax fight, in spite of every thing I saw, a big part of me wished to see Sampath- the primary antagonist- live.

When scenes carefully build up to them, fight sequences stir something deep inside us -- a feeling to see someone undo the wrongs in the society. There are nearly five prominent actions scenes and they all work wonderfully. Judiciously using slow-motion, the action choreography are one of this film's high points. They often get over-dramatic with bodies flying higher than gravity would permit, but I didn't have any problem. I was having too much fun to complain. 

This is a film which gets the milieu and this is a director who understands the importance of shooting scenes in the very same locations which are mentioned in the movie. The story happens in certain specific places in and around Chennai, like Pallavaram, Soucarpet, Velacherry and Vandalur. So when the Shakti is driving his auto from Tambaram to Velacherry, he is shown travelling on the very same road. Maybe it's just because I live and work in a few of those places, but this attention to detail pleased me very much. 

Pattimandram Raja and Saranya Ponvannan play Shakthi's parents, but the film never tries to squeeze some inane humor from them. Anjali's character could have been written better and, even though the love story is largely entertaining and better than we see in most action films, it pales in comparison to the rest of the movie. The final scene at the hospital made me cringe and the film closed on a slightly dull note. But that shouldn't take away anything from the rest of the film's good work. 

Vathikuchi is a solid action film that features some nifty writing and risky directorial choices which truly pay off. The pacing is just about right and the songs are never a hindrance. Vathikuchi is recommended. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Attacks of 26/11 (2013)

I have seen only one Ram Gopal Verma film in my life: Rangeela. I never got around to watch his critically-acclaimed crime dramas, his spate of horror films or even the universally hated recent misadventures. I do not understand the praise or the criticism he has received. Oh boy. I do now. The criticism. 

The film opens with a Joint Commissioner of Police, accused of mishandling the fightback and botching up the subsequent investigation, deposing before a committee set up to uncover discrepancies. There are numerous ways to make a film around this historical event. Ramu could have made a film from one family's point of view; or about a slew of strangers caught in different parts of the city, struggling to stay alive. Instead, he chooses to make the all encompassing version which starts in the Arabian Sea and goes about,  procedurally, creating mayhem in all the places we now associate with the terror attacks. There's nothing wrong with Ramu's choice, per se, but the way he makes his movie. Leaving us with no one to relate to or root for, he insensitively turns most of his characters into mere props- bag of flesh and blood just waiting to take a bullet and spill their guts out. By taking this route, it never quite finds its unique voice. 

The film claims this particular terror attack was far more shocking than 9/11 because of its "sheer audacity". I don't think I agree. I believed there was a massive intelligence failure and a major botch up by the city's Police, fueled by intrusive media coverage. The film's job was to convince me to believe otherwise; to consider the Joint Commissioner's account and reassess my views. It has clearly failed miserably. In its attempt to give some sort of catharsis, the film colors the cop clean while only coming across as a movie about one man saving his ass by telling us what we already knew. No one asks him any hard questions. The 'committee' is basically a bunch of suited extras, who have vowed to never open their mouth, giving reaction shots. 

I expected the film to put the lone captured terrorist Ajmal Kasab on a pedestal. Ramu does exactly that, and more, by turning Kasab into a poster child. His representation of terrorists is so basic that I couldn't believe someone once considered this guy a great director. With terrorists putting on their best scary face, shaking their guns in fury as they pump bullets into all the underpaid extras, the whole atmosphere becomes very caricaturish. From the CCTV images, Kasab looked like an excited kid out on a field trip. But Ramu's Kasab is all Bharat Mata ki Maa ki, foaming at the mouth with fury. He was lucky enough to find a guy who sort of resembled Kasab, but he tortures the poor guy to act when he clearly can't. 

The direction is so bad you wouldn't believe. This is the kind of vision which was passable in the 90s Bollywood. But at a time when we are getting movies like Zero Dark Thirty, it is mind-boggling to have Ramu expect us to keep a straight face while looking at a shot of terrorists walking around, with a statue of a Hindu deity in the foreground, and dhoom tana dhoom tana music playing in the background. 

The Attacks of 26/11 is an insensitive, amateurishly directed film. Ramu is the only filmmaker in the entire world who got an opportunity to visit the ruins of Taj Mahal Palace. It's a real shame he couldn't make a half decent movie out of his first hand experience. It is grim and grotesque just for the sake of it. Avoid at all costs. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Like everyone, I do not expect greatness from every film I see; especially not from a Summer movie releasing in early March. I try to look at a movie by keeping in mind who it is playing for and see if it at least manages to do what it set out for. With all due respect to kids, Jack the Giant Slayer is a movie for undemanding kids. We get a good two dozen films like Jack.. every year and they somehow manage to make obscene amounts of money. In my view, these kind of films are the chalta hai fares which are dumped on us despite the makers' understanding that they are of substandard quality; where one-dimensional characters are chalta hai, as long as there is enough visual spectacle acting as a pillow to smother our senses. I almost wrote 'I expected something better from someone like Bryan Singer', but that would have been more appropriate during the release of Superman. That ship has sailed. 

It is time for movies like Jack.. to up the ante. They will soon become a dying breed if they continue to peddle out such mediocrity. We are in the golden era of television; shows like Game of Thrones are many times more spectacular than many of these films put together, and feature immensely superior writing. It is almost embarrassing to pay and knowingly watch something like Jack..  when a better way of spending time is only a few clicks away.

The guy sitting next to me was having his first 3D experience and was understandably excited. I too get curious every time an auteur attempts a movie with an extra dimension, but I would still prefer my movie the usual way. I'm afraid the word 'usual' may not mean the same anymore. See Life of Pi was gorgeous but it would have been so even in 2D. Sitting through these mega-budget Computer Generated orgy has become such a chore that even the occasional good ones are ruined. Unfortunately, I think we have reached a point where bitching about the futility of 3D is no longer in vogue. I would go out of my way to watch a 2D version but every cinema house around has changed allegiance. Enough of my troubles.

Jack the Giant Slayer does manage to get a couple of things right. Nicholas Hoult is pretty likable and Eleanor Tomlinson will have your attention. But the writing lacks the wit and humor necessary to keep one hooked. At times, it becomes so unengaging that you wouldn't mind if everyone just died and the lights came on. Like I said in the previous paragraph, the chalta hai apathy creeps in ever so often and Singer goes all Valkyrie on us. I have always believed that Fantasy should use CGI as a tool and not as a handicap; this movie thinks otherwise. 

At a time when everyone is re-imagining children's fairy tales for adults- filled with sex, profanity, violence and anachronistic soundtrack- there's this quality about Jack that makes it want to remains true to its roots. It is both a commendable exercise and something worth criticizing. It is a film for kids and I think it lacks the magic ingredient to keep the adults invested. 

The music is noticeably uninspiring. Maybe its the source material itself which is to blame here. A princess with an itch for adventure, a poor peasant boy with a heart of gold, an ignorant King, a scheming minister, giant creatures ugly enough to let us know we are supposed to hate them.. Jack the Giant Killer has it all. It is as silly as you'd expect a film titled "Jack the Giant Killer" to be. If you are still interested, remember to take the kids along. They'll probably have fun cause they don't know better. Sorry, kids. Oz: The Great and Powerful releases next week and it wouldn't make a difference which one you choose to go to. They are all just the same. Others can happily skip this without thinking twice.