Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Mumbai Xpress - Movie Review

[ This is the review of the Tamil version of the movie ]

Kamal Haasan's long dry spell continues. I am not expecting him to produce a masterpiece in every outing, but it has a been a while since he produced a quality motion picture. With the exception of 'Aalavandhan', his every movie in the past five years has been respectable, but they didn't showcase the talent and the passion of the man. The only logical conclusion is that Kamal has passed his peak and it will all be downhill for him hereafter. I say that to assuage myself, so that I don't expect much when I walk into his next movie.

The movie has a cartoon book sort of naughtiness. You have to slip into your kids' shoes to enjoy this movie. The story fits into a sentence. A kidnap plan by three wise men goes wrong, and all ends well. That's about it. Really, there is not much to tell you about the story, because there is no story per se. But the screenplay is an experiment. (a) The whole movie transpires within the span of 72 hours - I wonder how many Tamil movies today are bold enough to present a screenplay working within a time framework. (b) Second Tamil movie to be digitally photographed - a promising trend (c) Only one proper song - saves the audience many bathroom breaks. (d) No romantic outings between the leads; infact there is no clear female lead - a critical cinema formula is broken.

The movie does not have a proper focus or destination point. Which is good and bad. Good, because it keeps the audience guessing (predictability is the bane of Indian movies). And bad because it transfers the burden from the script to the director. Here, the execution is comparable to that a TV serial. There is not depth at all in the direction. Kamal Haasan has tried to show off his screenwriting abilites, with much of the second half having convoluted plots out of simple situations and thereby exposed Singeetham Srinivasa Rao's flaws as a director. There are times when the movie sounds like a guest at a party, who thinks he's funny but actually horrible. If Kamal had toned down his circuitous ways with narration and if SSR had concentrated more on character development, the movie would have been somewhat memorable.

It is hard to believe that this is the combination that produced 'Micheal Madana Kama Rajan', arguably the funniest Tamil movie ever, 'Kaadhala Kaadhala', and 'Pushpaka Vimana', very respectable efforts. Crazy Mohan's absence is prominent. Dialouges are not bad. It's just that they're not good enough for a comedy movie. Siddharth is the photographer and music is composed by Ilayaraja. Maneesha Koirala, Hardhik, Pasupathi, Vaiyapuri, Ramesh Arvind, Nasser and Santhana Barathy are present in the movie.

The movie left me wondering about many things. (a) In the first half, almost one in three scenes featured an aeroplane. I was thinking that aeroplanes were characterized (trains were symbolized in Apu trilogy) and would have some symbolic meaning. The second half totally ignores aeroplanes. (b) In the title scene, we see the sun shining on a Dharavi street and by the end of titles a few men roll something on the street that obstructs the sunlight onto the camera. I couldn't find any connection between that scene and the tone of the movie. (c) The name of the movie does not have any great significance to the storyline. I don't even find it catchy. (d) There are many logical inconsistencies, so let me stop here.

The term 'good humour' is very subjective. What's funny to me may be your sharpest blade, which essentially divides the audience in cases of comedy - you either love it or hate it. Half the theatre was laughing out loud and the rest were stoned. I confess that I laughed here and there, but I felt let down at the end of the movie.

Chandramukhi - Movie Review

There is something called as 'The Rajini Formula'. If you're from Mars, this is it: a larger-than-life hero, his ideal parents, a well defined villain, a group of good friends, a cute heroine, an evil project, four fights, six songs, Rajini single-handedly smashing the villain and his men at the end, a unique blend of humour, emphasis on family values, climbing up in life, advice to younsters, and last but not the least: an extraordinary style. A Rajini movie is simply a combination, or a variation of the combination of these elements. 'Chandramukhi' makes the cardinal mistake: It violates the Rajini formula.

Rajini has always played a character where the common man finds himself in Rajini and goes on to project Rajini's feats as his own. The success of Rajini is attributed to the fact that even a cycle rikshaw driver dreams of challenging the biggest man in town, falling in love with his beautiful daughter, fighting evil, and still live happily joking around. This is what Rajini did - what you dreamt of doing, but the practical world denied opportunities, Rajini did all that for you and you happily wallowed in Rajini's world.

In 'Chandramukhi', Rajini is a psychiatrist who was educated and practices in the U.S. Think of the poor riskshawwallah. There is no well defined villain. Which means no challenges for Rajini!! Only two fights sequences, that too contrived. Hmmm. No climax fights. What? His exquisite style is missing. That's too much. Wait. Well, I don't mean it's a bad movie. The movie is a good commercial entertainer. It stands very well on its own. But what it lacks is the typical Rajini flavour. 'Chandramukhi' might have as well starred a Karthik or a Prabhu or any lesser actor in the lead and would've still made money.

Now, the story. Saravanan (Rajini) accompanies his friend Senthilnath (Prabhu), his wife Ganga (Jyothika) to their new Vettayapuram palace, which was not used for the past 50 years because of fear/rumour that a woman named Chandramukhi's spirit is still active in the palace. About 200 years back, a king/zamindar who lived in that palace had brought Chandramukhi, a dancer from Andhra Pradesh to his palace against her wish. Chandramukhi, brings her lover along with her to the palace and secretly continues her affair with him. When this is brought to the king's attention, he sets the couple ablaze. <Spoiler> Ganga, who is inquisitive by her nature, delves into the room where Chandramukhi's paraphernalia is stored and somehow the spirit rents her body. Chandramukhi's spirit won't leave until it kills the king. Saravanan, a psychiatrist, understands this and presents himself as the king to the spirit. The movie ends with a ploy that convinces Chandramukhi of the death of the king, while Saravanan remains unscathed. </Spoiler>

The last 30 minutes is what makes up the movie. The climactic scenes where Rajini along with a namboodiri drive away the spirits of Chandramukhi is where we see the much beloved hero. The song 'rara sarasaku', completely written in Telugu is destined to be the song of the movie. Not only is the song good, it also features Rajini as a womanizer trying to seduce and drive away Chandramukhi at the same time. What a treat those 5 minutes are. I was reminded of his roles in '16 Vayadhinile' and 'Avargal', where he defined the performance for forth coming sadists.

Vadivelu and Rajini offer some funny moments. Still I feel that the director did not extract the best out of either Vadivelu or Rajini. There is a romantic sub-plot between Rajini and Nayanthara, which is as deep as pond water. Most of the conversations seem like they were written for Mammotty - they are explanatory, hardly any punch dialogues for the audience to applaud. The stunts, choreographed by 'Thalapathi' Dinesh leaves much to be desired. Most of the stunt sequences employ invisible cables to give a flying notion and age seems to have caught with Rajini when he flies, sorry, fights. Songs are a definite plus. Kudos to Vidyasagar. Photography and visual effects are average. Direction is incompetent, as always with P.Vasu.

If you're a die-hard Rajini fan, you will be happy for Rajini who has bounced back from a flopshow and be a little sad for not seeing the man in full flow. This is a movie where his charisma and style is put to rest. If you're no fan of Rajini but want to spend some time watching a decent entertainer, I recommend it.

Million Dollar Baby - Movie Review

[This review discusses a crucial plot detail. The review is best read after viewing the movie.]

'Million Dollar Baby' starts out as any good sports movie, with Maggie Fitzgerald, an aging waitress (31) wanting to become a boxing champion. She works hard, but realizes that without proper training all her effort will go down the drain. She approaches Frankie Dunn, a respected trainer, who refuses to take her saying that he doesn't train 'girls', as a policy, not out of disrespect for women. While she persists in wanting to be his trainee, Eddie Dupris, a superior boxer of yesteryears and a long time friend of Frankie observes her dedication and strong will.

What happens in the second act is pure sports movie build. Upon Eddie's recommendation and in an attempt to fill his protege-void, Frankie accepts her. We see a good rapport developing between Maggie and Frankie on and off the boxing ring. Frankie keeps saying "the first rule is to save yourself". The fight sequences are effective in displaying Maggie's mental strength more than her physical.

Eddie, in his boxing days, hurt his eye in a fight very badly and continued boxing when Frankie remained his cohort. He later lost that eye. Since then Frankie has been blaming himself for not pulling Eddie out of the ring. Eddie realizes that the tortured soul that Frankie is, he's not going to allow Maggie into top league because of his inner fears. Eddie even manages to arrange a deal for Maggie with a boxing agent, which turns out to be a futile effort. Within a span of 18 months Maggie rises from relative obscurity to the top of the heap and she is all set to take the champion for the title.

The third and final act of the movie is what makes it a class act. During the championship match, Maggie's moment of lapse in concentration results in a cruel blow that leaves her paralysed from neck down for the rest of her life. Maggie blames herself for not following the first rule in boxing. Frankie blames himself for causing her life irreparable damage.

What follows are sequences that deal with unanswerable questions about euthanasia. What is the dignified thing to do? To let our loved one die in peace or offer our loved one a hope of a better tomorrow and keep them going on. Frankie knows that more than pulling the plug, it's the emotional guilt that he may have to carry which will torture him forever. The conversations between Eddie and Frankie is an attempt at assuaging that guilt. I found the ending to be even-handed (maybe because it fits my idea of even-handedness) without any glorification of the characters.

Only three characters are at the centre of the movie. Hillary Swank plays Maggie and she perfectly fits the bill. She had to physically transform* herself for this Oscar winning role. Magnificent performance. Clint Eastwood (Frankie) and Morgan Freeman (Eddie) are like wines - they keep getting better and valuable with time. Such controlled performances that the viewers forget they were in a movie theatre witnessing actors. Hallmarks of great acting stamped all over Eastwood and Freeman.

Paul Haggis has written the screenplay based on short stories by F.X.Toole. Screenwriting of this kind has to be commended. There is no single scene that can be called 'standout' or 'turning point'. The movie unfolds at a deliberately slow pace. Yet at the end of the movie so much seems to have happened. And this is flawlessly handled by Eastwood, the director. Clint Eastwood is called an 'actor-director' in some corners. The term 'actor-director', somehow belittles the director's prowess. It means an actor, who acted in a few movies, understood how the movie system works and eventually began directing movies. Eastwood has directed twenty-five movies, a number higher than that of many established American directors and he stands as a proper 'director' in every sense of the word. His last two outings, 'Mystic River' and 'Million Dollar Baby' strongly support that statement. It would suffice to say that everyone behind the camera has given their best, instead of individually congratualting the technicians.

There is a good directorial moment: Frankie and Maggie on their way back from visiting her estranged family, stop at a gas station. Maggie, on an emotional level has clearly distanced herself from her family and feels like she's cut-off from a family-oriented world. Frankie gets out and waters the windshield and starts cleaning it, while Maggie stays inside the car. The camera, which focusses Maggie from outside the car through the windshield, captures the transformation from a stained Maggie to a clear Maggie looking at Frankie, symbolically accepting him as her father figure.

*I will write another post about actors who physically transform themselves to deliver believable performances.

European Artistry

Those who've seen a lot of international movies, will find a marked difference in the way a storyline is handled by the Americans* and the Europeans. In Hollywood, the emphasis is on superior production values, grandeur, and top class entertainment. On the other side of the Atlantic, the stress is on presentation, presentation and presentation. The European artistes, instead of working on a big budget, they workout their brains. However simple a story is, they find ways to present it touchingly - with a right balance of subtle humour and non-manipulative emotions.

I saw a French movie recently. It followed the famous multi-perspective-screenplay technique that Kurosawa** taught the universal filmdom (used in Virumandi). The brilliance of the screenplay is really overwhelming. The first half of the story is very serious. It deals with a rebel, who has lost his job for no fault of his and wants to get even by killing his boss. He goes into hiding in a friend's place and plans to carryout his operations. The screenplay smoothly contours his transformation from a law-abiding tolerant citizen to a terrorist who wants to kill all the bosses (and even kill himself if required) for the sake of the betterment of the society. There are no dramatic or abrupt changes in his life. All of it happens over a course of few months. I thought the story was making a strong statement about the power of fate and the range of things that could go out of our control while we happily think that we have a firm grip on our lives. In just 45 minutes, the screenplay clearly exposed the mindset of a young man rejected by the mainstream society.

The second half, you wouldn't believe, is absolutely funny. The screenplay tells you the story from the perspective of a woman, in whose apartment the young man (protagonist of the first half) hides. Most of the characters and events from the first half intersect in the second half. Only this time, every word they speak have a totally different meaning than it was uttered the first time. What offered some very tense moments in the first half, have a sublimely funny connotation in the second half. Serious thought-provoking dialogues in the first half are ludicrous in the second half. The second half deals with mid-life crisis and how a couple in their forties are trying to hold up their marriage. By the end of the movie, I was amazed at the brilliance of the writers.

I've seen quite a few European movies. And they all bear a continental fingerprint: Overlapping dialogues. Long pauses between conversations. Nudity is not commercialized. No breathtaking action sequences. Top notch writing. Meaningful cinematography (revolving shots are very rare and most of the time we have a static camera). Actors fit very well into their roles. Impeccable direction.

Although Hollywood movies are entertaining, only European products stay close to our hearts. That is why, when we consider the A list directors of the past century, there are so many from Europe. The case is not restricted to movies, but in all art forms - painting, music, designing, drawing, cooking, photography, ceramics, sculpting, fiber works, etc Europe has produced leaders. Must be their genes!!

*By Americans, I mean the major Hollywood studios. But now-a-days, Indie movies, with the backing of studios like Miramax are producing great movies with artistic values.

** Kurosawa's Rashomon (1949) was the first movie in cinema history to narrate a single incident from various perspectives. It took the top prizes at Cannes that year.

Black - Movie Review

This is a classic tale portraying the growth of human soul by exploring the relationship between a teacher and a student, where the teacher discovers himself in his student and the student discovers herself in her teacher. Although this is a beaten track and many movies have been made with a similar motif, I can't think of any in the Indian context.

The movie is set in the early 20th century, somewhere in North India. The student Michele McNally, is blind and deaf, thereby rendering her effectively mute. The teacher is Debraj Sahai, a hyperactive old man, who has a method in his madness. The first half deals with the initial estrangement between them and then a reluctant acceptance. The second half deals with the varying degrees of dependence of Michele on Sahai and the gradual slippery of Sahai into alzheimers disease.

The movie suffers from what I call an 'essential-elements-screenplay' syndrome. The script has all the elements to make it a great movie. But only those elements are presented to the viewer. There is no smooth connection between these elements. It was like watching the highlights of a cricket match. The experience of watching a match cannot be equalled by the highlights!! I guess the original intended screenplay would have run somewhere between 3 and 3.5 hours, and the producer and/or director decided to excise some parts to fit our standard two and a half hour format. If they had shot what was excised, we must have had a simple, powerful and a complete story.

Take this for example: within fifteen minutes after the titles, the movie jumps into the interaction between Sahai and Michele. We are not provided with enough background information about either of them to prepare ourselves for the sort of relationship between them. During their initial interactions, every single scene has a message. Every scene told me something new about the characters: the eating habits of Michele, how emotionally suppressed she is, how agile and active Sahai is, his techniques to control Michele, how Sahai is still a child inside, Michele's mother's patience and mature outlook, Michele's father's temperament, etc. Good. But not great. What we need is a story in between messages. As audience, I strongly felt the need to see their lives unfolding. I wanted to know everyone's perspective on life, especially Michele's*. What I got was a message in every scene.

Consider a scene, where Sahai kisses Michele. Obviously, the scene is not about sexual gratification. Sahai continues to be a teacher and kisses Michele upon her request. It is more like a lesson to her. This scene, if it had followed appropriate character development, should have added great depth and complexity to their relationship. But it falls flat. There is another magnificent scene: Michele waits for Sahai to return after buying icecream in a town market street. Alzheimers catching up with him, he forgets her totally and goes home. Again, a brilliant situation to explore the depths of relationship between them. But what follows is emotionally void.

Amitabh Bachchan plays Sahai, and what a performance this is. He exuberates great energy in bringing the role to life that some of our young, top, highly paid Tamil heroes should learn from him. Young Michele is played by Ayesha Kapoor, and she plays it to perfection. Kudos to the director for that. Rani Mukherjee plays the adult Michele. She has her mouth half-open and walks like a drunken Charlie Chaplin. Inspite of some gems of acting from her, mostly it is a over the top performance and I wouldn't be surprised if she gets her national award next year.

Ravi K.Chandran is the photographer. Almost every single frame has a predominant white and black texture. Considering that two thirds of the movie is shot indoor, it becomes easy for him to manipulate the colour. And even the outdoor scenes are shot either in the early morning or in the night, which again makes it black and white. Some of the scenes containing red of blue colour seems to be desaturated and never get to see brilliant natural colours. This sort of adds a dreamy value to the movie. When a movie deals with suppressed emotions and tenderness, it is very important to have a sense of reality for the audience to identify. The photography is glamorous and simply distracts the audience from the storyline.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has directed very well with the available script. He has taken extreme care in composing every single frame and has extracted top quality work from his collaborators. Bhansali, Prakash Kapadia and Bhavani Iyer have written the screenplay. They should be punished for mutilating a good story. Monty Sharma's music is soothing and never announces itself.

* Michele's thoughts on life is provided by a voice-over by Rani Mukherjee. Since I don't understand Hindi, I can't comment about it. Almost 50% of the running length had silent pauses and conversations in English, and that was easy on me.

Aviator - Movie Review

The movie is a partial bio-film (1927 -1947) of the insanely rich and the insanely talented Howard Hughes who created splashes in Hollywood through his movies and experiments in the aviation sector. It was an era when the major Hollywood players made movies inside their studios and talked about big budget. Hughes was in a different league. He gathered the largest private airforce to make 'breathtaking' war scenes for his movie 'Hell's Angels', which was the most expensive production of his time. The movie suffered from his eccentricity, when he repeatedly changed his ideas on presentation and kept the budget bulging all the time. Finally when the movie was released after 2.5 years of pregnancy period, it was received with a grand welcome, but didn't make enough to break even ($3.8 millions in the late 20's).

Although Hughes continued to make movies after 'Hell's Angels', the screenplay focusses on his love with aviation from then on, which justifies the title. Hughes treats his private airplane like we treat our bikes. A good deal of the first third of the movie is spent in developing the relationship between Hughes and Hepburn. In a party, when he's bored by the chit-chat of Hollywood stars, he picks up Katherine Hepburn and goes for an air-ride over Beverly Hills. Hughes understands that Hepburn is equally bored at the mundane proceedings of an ordinary life and enjoys adventure with the same passion he has. She later moves into his home and then they attend parties of glitz and glamour. While she seems to enjoy all the public attention, Hughes hates it. By this time, we see that they don't enjoy a great chemistry and know where it is going. Before Hughes breaks up with Hepburn, he already has the reputation of a playboy. After she leaves him, he revels in the company of Faith Domergue and Ava Gardner for a while before he becomes a recluse. The movie hints at his obsession with cleanliness.

The second third consolidates Hughes dreams of building aircrafts with superior engineering. He avoids conventional design and engineering as if it were a plague. He dreams of powerful propellers, large wing spans, efficient engines, flying across the Atlantic non-stop, an aircraft that will carry more than 30 passengers, a reconnaissance flight and much more. He not only builds them, but he test flies everything. There is a scene where he test flies an aircraft and he enjoys his flight so much that he ignores the ground control. It's too late when he realizes that he has run out of fuel and crashlands into a beet field splashing beet juice all over himself and the bird. All the while, an unquenched passion for aviation in present in his eyes. Whenever he sees a flight, his eyes light up. By this time, he is a germ-free freak.

The last segment has a lot of drama in it. Hughes becomes the major share holder of TWA (Trans World Airlines). The also receives orders from the U.S military (II World War). Hughes test flies an XF-11 reconnoitter and crashes into heart of Beverly Hills. He is very badly hit and his competitor Pan-Am, tries to negotiate a raw deal with him. When he refuses to budge, Pan-Am bribes Senator Brewster to press charges against him for defrauding the tax-payers money. He has now become a complete psychotic. He suffers from a bad case of OCD. He creates a germ free zone in his house and lives there for weeks drinking only milk in nudity (fearing his dresses may carry germs). His conversations with Brewster at the hearing sessions are examples of his skewed business acumen mixed with a childish frankness. The movie ends with his dream project of a ship-cum-flight taking off the sea.

Scorsese is good at handling emotionally troubled characters. He has done that with DeNiro in 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull'. 'The Aviator' does not come close to those masterpieces, but it's good and stands well on what it tries to do. He carefully adds depth to the characters from various dimensions with scenes that doesn't have words, but only gestures. DiCaprio as Hughes is usually solid and the screenplay by John Logan feeds him with enough challenging moments. Alec Baldwin (PanAm President) negotiating with Leonardo DiCaprio are good examples of restrained acting. Cate Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn wonderfully and won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, long time associate of Scorsese, helps this long-running movie. The crash scene, which is magnificently choreographed is an example of the photographer, sound effects editor and the art director all working in tandem for the director. I'm not a sound effects buff. But, every time I heard the engine roaring it was a different sound indicating the advancement in the aviation industry.

The movie garnered 11 Oscar nominations and won 5 of them, none in the top category. It has it's flaws, but still entertaining inspite of running close to 3 hours.