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.