Sunday, June 23, 2013

World War Z (2013)

As I walked out of the theater, unimpressed, I heard a few people around me likening World War Z to the Resident Evil movies. A part of me immediately wanted to defend the film, but then I realised big names don't necessarily warrant leniency. Calling World War Z just another zombie movie is a high compliment. Based on a bestselling book which claimed to be 'An Oral History of the Zombie War', and which I am sure it was, this film is so ordinary that, besides certain big set pieces (which still do not justify the absurd production budget), there is nothing in the movie which pushes the envelope of the Zombie genre. Sure, the movie never promised us 'An Oral History', but then why else would they adapt that book if the intention was to make just another zombie movie? If the idea was to make a series of films, then they shouldn't have hired Marc "where-did-all-the-money-go" Forster to make the first one.

There are many kinds of outbreak movies. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, at its core, dealt with the fascinating phenomenon of a virus outbreak in today's interconnected world inevitably leading to a pandemic. Then there are post-apocalyptic materials like The Walking Dead where the people have resigned to their new fate and learning to live again. WWZ tries to marry the globe-trotting element of the former with the sudden-coming-to-terms-with-the-dystopia of the latter. Here, our protagonist is at the center of the action and is expected to find a cure. As the action shifts from Philadelphia to South Korea to Israel to Cardiff, WWZ attempts to give us something which we never missed in the first place- magnificent Zombie action. In truth, maybe we haven't seen a zombie spectacle like this; if putting a zillion CGI'd zombies in a frame is epic, then WWZ  indeed is. But besides the 'zombie pyramid', the movie is not particularly inventive at it- not even as much as Warm Bodies.

A character tells Brad Pitt, a former UN employee, that Mother Nature is the greatest serial killer ever; like all serial killers, a part of her wants to get caught. There's a part of World War Z which, deliberately or otherwise, puts its cards on the table a little too soon and outs its secret. It is not entirely predictable, but once a scene gets established, it oddly becomes obvious to tell how things would eventually pan out. Instead of filling you with dread at the thought of the oncoming catastrophe, it braces you for impact, so to speak. In capable hands, certains scenes in this film could have whipped up unbelievable amount of tension. For example, there's one Argo-esque sequence involving a plane on the runway and chasing zombies which is shockingly tame.

World War Z doesn't take a moment's time to look back and think at what has happened to humanity. It mentions in the passing that entire cities were brought down to their knees and zombified, but it is very cold while doing so. I was bothered by how quickly the film took an Us and Them attitude towards undead. Entire cities are bombed and we feel nothing. I don't have the heart to call World War Z a bad film. It is adequately entertaining but there's less of everything. While the restraint in the climax, à la Skyfall, is commendable, the aforementioned predictability seeps in yet again hampering the tension.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Aval Appadithan (1978)

While interviewing a subject for his documentary on the state of women in India, Arun begins by asking, "Ungalukku yethana pasanga.."  before correcting himself and continuing with "..I mean, kozhandhainga?"  This one line with a simple correction may be easily taken for just a harmless slip of tongue on Kamal Hassan's part, but there was something extraordinary about it that caught my attention. I gave it some thought and it dawned on me how Indians have long had this habit of casually using a masculine term to collectively refer to children. I recollect from my days in Gujarat where parents unconsciously called their daughters 'beta'. The word pasanga has slowly eaten its way into our psyche and firmly established itself as a synonym for children. Arun felt the urge to correct himself because he is a compulsive feminist for whom political correctness is like oxygen.

Arun is where I personally wish to be in a few years' time. We can never tell what exactly kindled the feminist in him, but we can correctly assume that he has had it all worked out in his head for a long time now. He has reached a point where he no longer feels the need to have petty arguments with people who are simply never going to change their outlook. Though he does die a thousand deaths when he witnesses the level of misogyny and sexism prevailing in the mainstream. His frustrations and indomitable urges to do something that can bring about change lead him to make his documentary.

On the other end of the feminist spectrum is Arun's friend Tyagu, a male-chauvinist who is an embodiment of everything that we associate with sexism. He is the antithesis of Arun in how he whips out thathuvams describing women the way he sees them. He is a young and successful businessman with a very active sex life. Like with every sexist person, his words reek with double standards. Played by a perfectly cast Rajnikanth, Tyagu is irresistible despite the fact that I don't subscribe to his beliefs in the slightest.

When Arun needs help with his documentary, Tyagu asks his company's art director Manju (Sripriya) to offer her services. Through the days they spend together interviewing prominent women from all backgrounds, Manju ends up becoming Arun's single most fascinating subject. With a broken past consisting a cheating Mother, a subservient father, an abusive uncle and a bevy of disappointing lovers, she finds comfort wearing the mask of misandry. As Arun tries to peel layers off her to understand the real her, she keeps becoming even more inscrutable.

To quote Silambarasan, 'Jeans podra ponnunga ellam kettavangalum illa; chudidhar podra ellam  ponnungalum nallavanglum illa.'  While I have no idea what the definition of nalla ponnunga and ketta ponnunga is, I mention this line because Manju is a "modern" woman living in 70s Madras who can only be seen wearing sarees. Without any histrionics, Rudraiyya underlines that very same fascinating and yet simple idea with immense subtlety. Rudraiyya never feels the need to resort to handy character traits such as a drinking and smoking woman to highlight Manju's modernity. Not that there is anything wrong with a woman doing that, of course, but that would have been a lazy shorthand.

Manju's 'all-men-are-scoundrels' attitude wavers a bit every time she's around Arun. During an interview with an actress, Arun asks her if she feels servile for having to trim her eyebrows to look beautiful for the sake of men. While Arun's point that women try to look beautiful only to impress men is arguably incorrect, you might notice that Manju herself has her brows trimmed. The actress talks with disgust about the holier than thou attitude many outsiders take towards them.

At the peril of sounding like a gender-traitor, I have noticed how most men often resort to maligning an attractive woman when she appears ungettable. Rumors are started and jokes are said at her expense. I have been a culprit myself, though in a more harmless way. Manju is fodder for all sorts of office gossip because she intimidates men and women alike. Even Tyagu, her boss, is a scheming bastard who wants to bed her. Her being so hard to get makes her even more alluring to him. To be honest and fair to him, there are instances where he is surprisingly broad-minded. When he tells Arun that Manju is nothing but a sex-starved bitch, you can see that that's his honest assessment. He almost makes you wonder if that might be true.

In the final stages of production, Arun questions a bunch of female college students about their thoughts on premarital sex and legalized abortion. The answers are unsatisfactory and muffled. The giggling girls do not have an opinion on issues which stare them in the face. As a stark contrast, Arun talks to a group of women who appear to be poor and illiterate. This time his questions range from patriarchy to male infidelity and the response is startlingly heartening. But there's also a section of women which ridicules the entire demand for equality. I spoke in length about my own experience with my mother because I believe women are their biggest enemy in this battle. Their apathy and willingness to remain docile is also what's making it harder for them to blossom as they could.

One of the film's masterstroke- a very cruel joke on Manju- is making her fall in love again on her own terms. She slowly gets there, but not soon enough. I was always on her side, but there came a point where even I wished she would let her guard down. Despite all attempts from Arun to give this phenomenal woman the happiness she deserved, it is her own stubbornness which leads to her doom.

"What do you think about women's liberation?"
"Atha pathi yenakku onnum theriyathu.."
"Romba safe answer. Athan neenga santhoshama irrukinga."

The film probably wouldn't have been as special without the heartbreaking turn of events in the final minutes. In the end, she does exactly what she swore she would never: stand in a corner, filled with regret.

"yerinthu pona veedu.. murinthu pona uravugal.. 
kalainthu pona vanavugal.. sumakka mudiyatha sogangal.. 
meendum oru murai Manju iranthu ponal.. 
intha saavai sagitthu kolla Manju vaal thaanga mudiyavillai 
hm.. aval pirappal irappal; irappal pirappal.. aval appadithan."

Aval Appadithan is very easily one of the most shockingly great Tamil films I have ever seen. That this film released three decades ago in this very industry starring our very own superstars is what boggles me. Imagine the fate of Tamil cinema had it taken this alternate path of realistic films. In a word, Aval Appadithan is uncompromising. It lays in front of you the naked truth without having two thoughts about it. It seamlessly switches between English and Tamil to create an image of a Madras I never imagined existed. It cannot be bothered to dumb itself down for the least common denominator. The stellar script contains lines brimming with honesty. The three lead characters are fully realised individuals, magnificent in their own way.

It never once becomes an issue movie giving us a big moral science lesson. For most part, I only had this feeling that someone out there had made a movie that totally gets me. I now wonder if this film managed to bring in a change of heart in people who believed otherwise. It is bold by all means and very much ahead of its time. There was a time when Tamil films had titles far more poetic than anything else in the movie. (Manju asks Arun if the title of his documentary Muzhubaagil Oru Paathi is also on the same lines.) But unlike those others films from the period, Aval Appadithan is truly poignant.

Twenty three years after the release of the first color film in Tamil, Aval Appadithan was probably shot in black and white to achieve a style or due to monetary constraints or both. In 1978, Rajini acted in 21 films (including Bairavi, Priya and Mullum Malarum) and Kamal in 16 (including Sigappu Rojakkal). The numbers are shocking to say the least. There are two big scenes involving them where they don't even share a frame. Even Sripriya was doing nearly half a dozen films. It is quite amazing that these top stars have given performances of their lifetime under such a schedule. The credit must go to Rudraiyya or whoever came up with the idea of casting these three. 

The close-up shots, the background score and songs (I decided to watch this film only after recently discovering Uravugal Thodarkathai), the offhanded acting.. everything I love. This one film has made me sit up straight and look for more such gems from our past. They are definitely there; we just have to look closer.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru (2013)

Every time a film comes where Santhanam is its saving grace, we often joke how he is the actual hero holding the film together, while the supposed lead actor is merely a supporting character. This film's posters showed him off prominently, and I thought to myself : 'here comes another movie trying to make some money off Santhanam.' But watching him play a love guru who has brought romance into the lives of scary looking henchmen to popular film stars, it became clear that Santhanam was indeed, in every which way, Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru's real hero. 

In most of his movies, Santhanam's part is almost completely redundant - always playing the guy who tags along with the "hero". But in this case, there can be no TVSK without him. He is to TVSK what Will Smith is to Hitch. The story involves Kumar (Siddharth), a software engineer who is either disinterested or tongue-tied around girls- thanks to his past experiences. When a new girl joins his workplace, he seeks the help of Love Guru Mokia (Santhanam) to help him woo her. As hurdles keep coming their way, the rest of the film sees Mokia help Kumar to surmount them. While the story is very simple and even the directions the screenplay takes are hardly novel, the film works because Santhanam works. He overshadows every other actor in the film, who are merely left saying things so he could respond with a spectacularly timed one-liner. Just when I feared he was getting monotonous with his brand of nakkal-based comedy, he yet again proves me wrong by giving a hilarious performance. 

The one good thing the film's marketing campaign did was to keep away all the good stuff away from promotion materials. I walked in right after watching Man of Steel, and expected to see a nonsensical trash.  I was happy to be surprised. As the film's narrator in the first few minutes, RJ Balaji, who debuts on the silver screen, is rather decent. It is when he shows up in front of us that he begins to disappoint. Most of his lines appear to be self-written and he basically rehashes the things he says on air and to not so good results. Besides Balaji, director Sundar C. assembles a large ensemble of comedy actors we have admired in the recent past: the plump girl from Neethane, Dilli Ganesh playing Bombay Ganesh, Bosskey, Manobala, Chitra Lakshmanan and also an actor each from Neram and Soodhu Kavvum. In spite of them, Santhanam, with a joke hit rate of over 80 percent gets all the deserved laughs. It's a Santhanam show all the way, but let's not forget Siddharth for channeling his Boys days. His appearance and a certain scenes will often remind you of his Munna. Oh, the film also stars Hansika. 

The film is hardly a comedic home-run. I would recommend it, but with a conditions apply sign. It has nothing else to offer besides Santhanam at his career best. The central love story is itself a big yawn. Kumar knows nothing about Sanjana but goes to the extent of killing himself after facing rejection. Since when did suicide become the pinnacle of displaying love? I chose to ignore these issues because at that moment it felt like I was nitpicking. Also, I had a rather swell time. Despite the fact that the film follows the 'Rom-Com with a Liar' template, complete with an airport climax, to the tee, it salvages itself solely by being high on laughs. 

Beneath all the humor, the film finds a way to make a point about the male hypocrisy. Be it the double standards brothers display upon knowing that someone loves their sister or the way Indian cinema has taught us that it is okay for men to accost and creep a woman into submission, I found TVSK to be a welcome respite from the unbearable 'intha-ponnungala-ipdi-thaan' attitude. For that, I must tip my proverbial hat to Sundar C. But then the film throws an unfunny homophobic joke at us; so I don't know what to make of the film's worldview. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

After Earth (2013)

Shyamalan is not new to making movies about parent-child relationship. I have seen two other films of his - The Sixth Sense and Signs - and both had a strong family component. But sitting through After Earth, there's always this inescapable feeling about how superficial the family drama was. This is a particularly big problem because the film doesn't have much else going for it. Without a strong story or even some high concept set pieces worth talking about, the film crumbles. 

Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) witnesses the death of his sister as a child and has been scarred ever since. The sole purpose of his life is to fill his father's over-sized shoes and make him proud. The only problem is that his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is a celebrated Military General who is absolutely fearless. Not fearless in Taylor Swift terms, but the kind of fearless that could be used as an excuse for his minimal vocabulary of expressions. After the Father-Son duo crash-land and get marooned on Earth, Kitai is required to seek a transmitter which is their only hope for survival. On this supposedly epic journey, Kitai must fight the demons - both personal and the kind that senses fear and tears one apart - to eventually become the Karate Kid

The science (Scientology?) in this sci-fi is specifically vague and unimaginative. Set a thousand years in the future where humans have left Earth behind and colonized some distant planet, the mythology in After Earth is severely under-wrought. Sporting some bland whale-shaped spacecrafts with bamboo interiors and awful looking seat-belts, the sense of wonder so essential to sci-fi is clearly missing. It may or may not be an esoteric Scientology propaganda movie, but it definitely is one lazy, lifeless piece of work. After Earth looks and feels like a Smiths star vehicle under which Shyamalan unceremoniously got caught. 

Apparently, every species on Earth has evolved to kill Humans. Through the film, we learn that that might not entirely be true. We see instances of intelligence and compassion displayed by animals, but this sub-plot is never completely explored. I hope the idea isn't to address these issues in the sequels. Wait, who am I kidding.. did you see how much money this film made in its first week? LOL.

It is like watching the Scientology version of The Karate Kid. Danger is real, but watching this movie is a choice. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Kutti Puli (2013)

There's one way to enjoy Kutti Puli and I am not even guaranteeing that: it is by accepting the fact that this isn't a film too interested in scenes that take a story forward. It begins with a mass hero's mass entry, then meanders for two hours with pointless fights, a few random attempts at humor and a bit of old-fashioned romance, before ending with an absurdly WTF-esque climax. Unlike Sundarapandian, a film which I loved quite a lot, Kutti Puli can happily lose huge chunks and still not be misunderstood; there's hardly anything in it worth misunderstanding. I couldn't even tell what this film was about until the final few seconds when it mildly became clear.

I am a sucker for a good masala film, but Kutti Puli is a weakly written excuse with enough scenes to pass it off as a movie. It is an Amma sentiment film of the worst kind. Saranya Ponnavan, typecast as ever, plays an illiterate, doting, widowed mother who breathes for her son Kutti Puli's sake. After losing her husband Periya Puli to violence, she intends to bring up her son her own way. Alas, the apple doesn't fall far from the aruva-weilding, blood-spewing tree. As he thwarts her every attempt to get him married, she is left with no option but to visit the wish-granting temple. In his defence, Puli is so much in love with the concept of being in love that he chooses to remain a bachelor, not wanting to bestow a life of violence on his future wife. He's a gem, I tell you.

Kutti Puli is a film filled with fight scenes which will make you go, "Gee, that escalated pretty quick!" When an infinitesimally petty altercation inflates into a full-blown fight, Puli inadvertently makes a few more enemies; the kind that stabs a 13 year old kid in the throat for making a speech in a political rally. Yeah, I am not oblivious to Madurai's reputation of being a rather violent place, but the amount of bloodshed here is ridiculous. Saranya's friend swells with pride when she talks about Puli's speciality of slitting Adam's apples. Assuming that the old hag is not making it up, a couple of questions: a) when exactly did that happen? b) why is he not in prison? and c) why is he freakin' killing people? The writing is so messed up, the film doesn't even bother to bring closure to the subplot regarding the political figure who apparently prodded the aforementioned 13 year old.

I find the basic notion of classifying audiences' intelligence based on where they live very offensive. Saying a film like Kutti Puli is targeted at the so called "B and C centers" is downright demeaning. Paruthiveeran was a Madurai film, but it worked across all these centers because it was a good film. Does it take the hero to wear a lungi for people in villages to like the film and relate to the characters? It must be noted that people at my screening were cheering and whistling through most parts of the movie. So does this mean we deserve movies like these? This is a deeper issue which calls for better understanding of people's psyche; passing off bilge as cinema of the rural masses is insulting the audience's intellect.

I was bored stiff for most parts of the film. The comedy sidesteps very far away from whatever little story the film has. Relying on popular romantic songs from the 70s/80s for the purpose of comedy has become a thing. Sasi Kumar tries to recreate something on the lines of  'Kangal Irandal' and embarrassingly fails. I will admit the 'Akka Maga' bit had me laughing for all its silliness, but the rest of the usage was so exhausting. Offering lame reasons to believe that an educated looking Lakshmi Menon can fall for someone like Puli, the film degrades its own worth even further. That the film would liken its grotesque climax to something on the lines of female empowerment is what boggles me to no end.
Kutti Puli is Tamil cinema's sincerely mediocre answer to Bollywood for Himmatwala. If you must watch this movie, remember to carry Tiger balm along.