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.