Friday, May 17, 2013

Neram (2013)

For Tamil film audience, good films very rarely come their way. If a film worth the admission price releases at least once a month, we'd still be a happy lot. The month of May has already seen the release of Nalan Kumarasamy's riotous Soodhu Kavvum; I am guessing our nalla neram has started because we have another film that's very similar in spirit and almost equally competent in entertaining. Debutante Writer/Director Alphonse Putharen's Neram is a bracing rollercoaster ride that bleeds with finesse.

Neram begins with a very heavy and almost overwhelming mood. Vetri (Nivin Pauly; an amalgamation of every Malayali boy I have known) goes to borrow money from a person named Vatti Raja to get his sister married. Soon enough, we learn that Vatti Raja (played by Simhaa) is a feared money-lender who would go to any length to see his money back. With a jarring bassline blowing from the speakers, the film unsettled me so much in its first few minutes that the arrival of Vetri's doe-eyed girlfriend Veni (Nazariya) felt like spotting an oasis in the middle of a desert. The juxtaposition turned the subsequent song (Kadhal Ennule) into the sweetest thing I had ever heard. It's a gorgeously picturised number that effortlessly makes you fall for the leads. 
The film opens with Tarantino's famous words, 'I steal from every single movie ever made.', with an added note saying that director Alphonse agrees to it. While Neram's story has a lot of commonplace elements like unemployment, trouble from girlfriend's family, sister's wedding and loan sharks which we have previously seen in older films, it is the delicious non-linear screenplay that steers it aparts. After the backstory is deftly taken care of, we wake up to the day Vetri is required to repay all his debts. And it is at that moment the film begins to pile all those problems and a couple of new ones on Vetri's head. While some moments lack the sparkle, the adequately intricate writing makes up for such missteps. 

Neram is a film that revels in coincidences. If a film like this cannot carouse on chance, then I don't know which one possibly can. Not all stories have the liberty of feasting on serendipitous plot elements. Neram works to earn that right and puts it to such a good use that we never crinkle our nose in discontent. As characters keep running into each other in different parts of Mandaveli, it only gives way to some other unexpected delightful occurrence. 

Without smothering us with a boring lesson on justice, Neram, instead, brings out the beauty in karma. By the end of this rollercoaster of a day, our thirst for justness and the need to see the wrongs being righted is partially subdued. But the sight of Vetri running in slow-motion to pumping music and beating up a few of the culprits is wonderously cathartic. 

Neram is filled with a surprisingly good dose of humor. For a film which started off on a very brooding note, its very late comic turn was, both, unexpected and effective. Supported by a very good cast consisting Thambi Ramaiah, Nasser and John Vijay in prominent roles, the film also features some very fine cinematography and sound design. Alphonse gets another pat on the back for his editing. Rajesh Murugesan's music is fabulous, energetic and atmospheric. I hope the days of technically inept directors fumbling with their work is behind us. Good times have begun for Tamil Cinema.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

I remember watching Star Trek on the first weekend of its release and forgetting most of it by the second weekend. I liked the movie quite a lot and IMDb tells me my 18 year old self gave it a rating of 9 -- something which happens very rarely these days. I never even got around to giving it a second viewing. Four years later, keeping alive the new Hollywood fad of using the word 'Dark' in a film's title, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness beams into Indian screens an entire week before its American release.

One of the nicest things about Into Darkness is how there aren't any bad guys per se. The ones who are are either covering up for their past mistakes or are driven by love. For most parts, I even found myself rooting for Cumberbatch's Khan, who is more an ally and less an adversary. My non-Trekkie self, oblivious to Khan's reputation, wished for things to forever remain peaceful; which might explain why I felt Khan's evil turn forced and sudden. The film itself had to rely on Spock Prime to spell it out to us why Khan mustn't be trusted and why he's the "Supervillain" of this film. That's just lazy, man. All the Sherlock fans out there weren't given enough reasons to snap their allegiance to Benny.

While throwing a character in harm's way at every available opportunity, the film almost never builds enough tension to put us in a spot. Even as we look at Spock and Kirk stuck in places where death is certain, we are seldom convinced that it has the guts/balls to bang in the last nail. How can they expect us to fear for their lives when everyone knows that you simply do not kill off a leading male character in the second instalment of a trilogy? I'm just kidding. It wasn't as bad as I might be indicating but I wish it was more tense. You just roll your eyes and move on.

Help me understand this: if the purpose of Enterprise is to go where no man has gone before, how will they do that if they keep getting called back to Earth? Should we be concerned by how this new series has spent so much time on Earth? At a time when Abrams is jumping ship to helm the new Star Wars movie, I find it a bit weird that the third installment of this apparent trilogy will have all the characters at their personal best. The long gestating five year mission appears to have finally cleared all checks and the prospect of reaching out to the unknown worlds and civilizations excites me very much. I just learnt that the film is filled with esoteric references to older Trek works which fans are likely to devour. Or loath. One can never tell. 

Delving deeper into the Kirk-Spock bromance, Into Darkness has Kirk maturing from a cocky hotshot Captain to someone feeling unsure whether he's cut out for the job and Spock trying to stop being uptight about protocols, learning to go with the gut-feeling and developing an instinct to leap without looking. Their clearly etched out arcs progress neatly, but no matter how much it tries, the emotions only run skin deep on almost all the occasions. Set within a very small span of time, the film does just about enough to develop Uhura and Spock's relationship, while hinting at a possible romantic interest for Kirk in the future. Also, the film isn't even half as intellectually simulating as its immediate predecessor, which at least had a subplot going on about alternate timelines. While its 'not-so-intelligent' plot doesn't hurt it much, I wish it had packed something to work my brain more.

A word on the presentation- I loved the 3D in Into Darkness. I am starting to believe it all comes down to where one watches a film, but the technology was put to a good effect yielding a surprisingly unobtrusive and passably immersive results. If you are still not convinced, let me assure you that the dark glasses will protect your eyes from Abrams' lens flares. Into Darkness isn't as dark as it tries to convince us of but helped by Cumberbatch's performance and gratuitous amount of action, it offers adequate Summer entertainment. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Soodhu Kavvum (2013)

Joblessness is the most common profession among Tamil film characters. Being vetti and drinking alcohol is usually all they do. The three characters we first meet in Soodhu Kavvum are cut from the same cloth, but debutant writer/director Nalan Kumarasamy gives them a fresh twist and makes this commonplace element appear interesting all over again. Pagalavan runs away from his town and lands in Chennai after getting in trouble for building a shrine for a Tamil film actress; Sekar loses his job as a valet after an incident with a Jaguar car; the third, Kesavan, has a psychotic female aiding in his getting fired from his IT job. Fate, monetary desperation and the lure of easy money would have them meet a person named Das who's currently working full time as a petty kidnapper. Helped by his hot, imaginary girlfriend, he recruits these three jobless folks. After a series of insignificantly small abductions, they eventually go big, thus starting a series of hilarious events which would change their life- for good or worse.

The screenplay is least predictable and completely stuffed with goodies. The narrative fluidity in Soodhu Kavvum- as it neatly establishes each character and hints at the arrival of new ones- deserves a mention. The players are not bumbling idiots pretending to be ace criminals. There's a never-ending struggle to make the best of the situation and try to rise on top. I feel the confidence, the relentless desire to plate a product brimming with finesse and the sharp vision exhibited by this new breed of filmmakers (most of them Naalaya Iyakkunar alumni; except the very talented Balaji Tharaneetharan and Thiagarajan Kumararaja.) While some of them haven't thought twice before shunning songs sequences in favor of narrative demands, Nalan Kumarasamy beautifully infuses tiny fantasy interludes to his film's benefit. Also, I hope this film makes so much money that he gets a bigger budget for VFX (which was hilariously bad here) in his next films.

I cannot recall the last time I laughed so much watching a Tamil film. There are so many lines which will be quoted forever in every friend circle. This is cult stuff. Unlike Santhanam's brand of comedy which is so conspicuously aimed at laughs, the jokes here are delivered so wryly that they sound all the more funnier. The scene which I laughed the most for is one which wouldn't even have been funny on paper. Set in a dark room made visible through greenish night-vision goggles, where our kidnappers grope in the emptiness while getting beaten up mercilessly, it had me in splits. 

Orey kallu la pala maanga. In a film populated with men, there's a possibility of things getting a bit dull, making it harder to sustain the audience's interest. I am not sure if our people are cut out for a Guy Ritchie-ish film. In spite of what we say about women in our films being just a pretty face, and expecting them to have a meatier role, in truth we really have gotten used to seeing them around- even if it is just for songs. Not having them around would turn most movies into unwatchable sausage fests. In Soodhu Kavvum's case, having a girl hang out with these bunch of crazy kidnappers would hardly be appropriate and would require a lot of explaining. To get around this issue, Kumarasamy turns Sanchita Shetty's Shalu into a manic pixie dream girl who exits solely in Das' imagination. By doing this, he gets to place an eye-candy in the frame and gains the artistic freedom to do whatever the hell he wishes to do with her, while still making it appear believable. In a scene reminiscent of "I Dream of Jeannie" Kumarasamy has her dress up in a swimwear, much to Das' dissatisfaction, having everyone else wish for one such hassle-free, imaginary girlfriend.

The one thing about Hollywood is that their stars are also usually very good actors. Sadly, that cannot be said about the present state of our cinema. Some of our biggest stars are actually very poor actors. It gives me immense joy to announce that Vijay Sethupati has arrived. His performance as the gray-haired, fake Wayfarer sporting, broken-english speaking Das serves the script to a tee.  He has a great screen presence and leading man quality that so many new actors lack. I just learnt from Wiki that he is 35 years old. It is so damn heartening to see his talent and hard-work pay off.  He is on his way to a much-deserved stardom. If a quick look at a list of his upcoming films is any indication, he is only getting started.

Ever since I started reviewing Tamil films, I have been constantly jealous of the Hindi film industry which has been consistently doling out films which were at least trying to be good and original. I think I can stop worrying for the last few months has seen Tamil cinema earn a group of interesting talent. If they have their Sneha Khanwalkars and Amit Trivedis, we have our own musical talent in Santosh Narayanan. Yet again, he provides a wonderful soundtrack which is so rich and varied. Soodhu Kavvum also gives us a legion of gifted new supporting actors and perfectly cast oldies like MS Bhaskar and Radha Ravi.

Soodhu Kavvum is not without problems though. While Sethupathi sure has an interesting look in the film, if the intention was to pass him off as an older man, I think they didn't quite manage to do that. I also felt the film very easily sidelined its primary villain, who was once made out to be a silent, larger than life and invincible badass cop. When pushing characters into territories which are hard to get out of, it is necessary for writers to better have some trick up their sleeve to make them come out of the same situation in an acceptable manner. The pre-interval Deus ex machina involving a toy helicopter comes to mind. Though the film is thoroughly entertaining, the final act felt a tad underwhelming- given the scenes which lead up to it.

Soodhu Kavvum is so damn entertaining that you cannot help but love it despite its imperfections.