Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers:  Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (Book)
Cast:       Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and is left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on a hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

It is an adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 novel with the same name and keeping in with its tone the film also uses humor to convey the story. I haven't read the book and so I cannot comment on whether the film did justice to it but I had a great time watching it. If a film can bring a tear to your eyes at the right point of time then it means that they got it more or less right. It doesn't really try to stress on the psychological aspects of being stranded on an alien planet and works more like a survival story based on botany and engineering. What we get from Matt Damon is a consistent attitude throughout the film laced with humor and wit. One of the biggest challenges in these kind of films is  to do expositions in a smart way and this film got a lot of it to do since he is sciencing the shit out of it to survive. Most of it is done by making him talk to the on-board cameras as he documents it and many times he is talking loudly to himself, a natural thing to do to keep your wits in such a scenario. I felt they gave enough respect to audience's intelligence and it didn't feel like they were doing too much explanation of the stuff that is happening. I am sure Honest Trailers will edit out enough footage from it to make you feel the opposite. 

Ridley Scott is bit of a hit and miss these days and is someone who is widely considered to have peaked quite early in his career with Blade Runner and Alien. 'Thelma & Louise' and 'Gladiator' are also considered as great films by many but i disagree on the latter which I think is overrated. 'The Counselor' got universal hatred while I actually enjoyed that film immensely. 'The Martian' will certainly be considered to be among his best films. He is 78 now and still going strong. As it stands, my ranking of his films, that I have watched, is as follows (with lot of stress of rewatchability):

  1. Blade Runner
  2. The Martian
  3. Alien
  4. The Counselor
  5. Thelma & Louise
  6. Kingdom of Heaven
  7. Gladiator
  8. Black Hawk Down
  9. Prometheus
  10. Body of Lies
So, overall, the Martian is a great watch and I regret the fact that I missed it during its theatrical run. I would have caught it had it was made available in any format other than 3-fucking-D. Most of its set were built in Budapest, Hungary and the Martian looking scenery was took from Wadi Rum, Jordan- a popular destination for Mars based films. No Astronaut movie would be complete without a David Bowie number and it is the 'Starman' song of his that gets used in this film. As far as space/alien planet based films go, I think it will be among my all time-favorites along with Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' and both these films couldn't be further apart in tone. If I were to compare with films from recent times, the obvious candidate would be Gravity which was all about getting the viewers experience space through its stunning visuals in 3D with a simple survival story to support it. 'The Martian' is more about the mechanics of survival and will age more gracefully with time since it got a more interesting central character and lot of other things. It is the highest grossing Ridley Scott film till date with a worldwide gross of close to $600 million. 

PS: It is a habit of big budget Hollywood films these days to pander to Chinese audience as it is a big market. The Martian manages to do that in the most graceful manner possible and it was also refreshing to see it not opting to put the possible monetary discussions that would have gone on if such a scenario occurred as well as any nationalistic jingoism. It is a feel-good-film that was done very right. 

Rating: 5/5

Friday, December 25, 2015

ചാർളി (Charlie) (2015)

Director: Martin Prakkat
Writers:  Martin Prakkat, Unni R.
Cast:       Dulquer Salman, Parvathy, Aparna Gopinath
Language: Malayalam

Tessa (Parvathy) is on the run from her family as they are pressuring her into an arranged marriage. She ends up in Kochi where she takes an old dilapidated room for rent. She finds out that the room is filled with the belongings of its previous occupant, Charlie (Dulquer Salman), and after the initial annoyance she gets more curious about him as she goes through his things. She sets out to find him through the clues that he has left in its room and by interacting with other people who know him, either fleetingly or intimately. 

It is unabashedly a feel good film and makes no bones about it. I wasn't sure about what kind of quality to expect from the film since its director, Martin Prakkat, is someone whom I am not a fan of and its writer, Unni R, has been associated with some very good projects (Big B, Munnariyippu, Bridge segment of Kerala Cafe) prior to this. And I got exactly what you would rationally expect in such a scenario- it is a much better film than any of the previous efforts from Prakkat while being considerably inferior to the Unni R that films I have mentioned here. 

Performances from the actors are good and film is technically very strong. It is a very good film to look at and the sequences in the first half showing Charlie's room are very well done in a psychedelic Dev D manner. You can forgive all the touristy vibe about its filming since the film is also going for the same in a thematic sense. Be happy, spread happiness and such bullshit. My major problem with the film is the shallowness with which Parvathy's character is handled. She is shown as someone who is kind of similar to, what turned out to be, Charlie's nature during the initial part of the film. They don't follow through on it and as soon as the Charlie character enters into the film, she is hollowed out into being just a character for the audience to get a perspective from in exploring Charlie. They then ruin it further by giving a romantic angle to it which was not at all convincing. It was as if the Aparna Gopinath character decided it for them by defining the relationship. It could have been much better if the relationship was shown as platonic or left ambiguous. 

It is overall an engaging watch that could have been much better if they had fleshed out both the characters instead of focusing solely on the male one. Couple of songs in it were pretty nice and another two were really unnecessary and affects the pacing of the film. Its release was delayed by one week to improve on some of the graphics used, supposedly, and I got to say they didn't really improve much on it going by one romantic song in it which featured some CGId doves and possibly couple of horses as well. If you are a fan of ultra-feel-good films you might enjoy it more than I did. I didn't like Amelie as well. 

PS: The costume of Charlie character was quite popular in both the positive and negative sense much ahead of its release and so it was not at all hard to spot Charlie in that scooter sequence, which is later revealed as a minor twist. Even that they could have used better if it was shown as if he dropped her into his place and thereby engineering the whole thing to see where it goes from there. It would have given more credibility to the romantic angle as well. But as it stands it is just another one of those improbable coincidences that Malayalam cinema is sadly so fond of.

Rating: 2.5/5

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sicario (2015)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer:    Taylor Sheridan
Cast:       Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between U.S. and Mexico. 

The film at its core is a thinking man's action film. It is a cold depiction of the American 'War on Drugs' at a macro level. At one point of time Josh Brolin's character states that as long as 20% of Americans snort that 'shit', drug trade is going to be the reality and the only thing they can do is try bring some order into it. It is the neighboring countries in Central and Latin America that gets affected by US' misguided 'War on Drugs' and it got to act when things get out of hand in those countries due to drug trade. It was Colombia in the early days, but now, most of the violence is centered around Mexico. In this film, Del Toro's character kind of represents the Colombian drug cartel going by the name 'Medellin' and he also has a personal score to settle against the head of the Mexican cartel-Sonora. The basic premise is that the FBI agents are attached to the mission basically because CIA cannot act in US domestic soil unless a domestic agency is attached to it and they are helping the Medellin cartel to kill the boss of Sonora cartel. The FBI agents and us, the viewers, are kept in the dark regarding these things and we piece them together over the course of the film. There isn't actually much action during the action set-pieces and it is much more about getting the atmosphere right and they do that with some stunning aerial shots set to some wonderful score and there is a night vision operation in a tunnel towards the end of the film. 

Villeneuve does not bother to pander the audience with great details or explanations and it is often the case with the films for the director to take a stand on the issue. He doesn't do that in an explicit fashion and so the film will be an enjoyable watch even if you are on opposing sides on the issue (US War on Drugs). You kind of root for Del Toro and Josh Brolin even though you know that what they are doing is not going to really help in the large scheme of things. Trying to bring some order into the drug trade is going to be futile since chaos and violence are so intrinsic in nature to these things. Only a policy level change on its so-called 'War' is going to change things and as more and more US states legalize Marijuana, there is hope that things will change soon enough. 

The ultimate 'War on Drugs' movie is Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic' which is kind of epic in its ambition. It tried to portray the issue from all sides. Sicario doesn't try to do that and I don't think it is an issue at all. There is a Mexican cop character in it, whose family is also shown occasionally throughout the film, and we might think that Denis is trying to show the other side in a tokenistic manner. What is brilliant is how that character is disposed off without bells and whistles keeping in with the overall theme of the film. 'Sicario' is the Spanish word for Hitman and it originates from 'Sicarii', a group of Jewish rebels that used a short sword hidden in their tunics during the times of Roman Empire. 

To sum up, it is an excellent watch with great performances from the terrific cast. Roger Deakins is behind the camera and as always you could see that from the output itself. Denis Villeneuve is slated to direct the Blade Runner project next and I am kind of disappointed by that. I would rather have him direct independent contemporary features instead of all this big budget crap which are either sci-fi or period. Invariably great directors tend to move on to big budget novelty projects after a certain amount of success, and it is very rare to see great ones making films that are contemporary in terms of settings and subject. If I were to rank Denis Villeneuve films, it would be as follows:  

  1. Enemy
  2. Sicario
  3. Incendies
  4. Polytechnique
  5. Prisoners
Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

ഒരു സിബിഐ ഡയറിക്കുറിപ്പ്‌ (Oru CBI Diary Kurippu) (1988)

Director: K Madhu
Writer:    S. N. Swamy
Cast:       Mammootty, Suresh Gopi, Jagathi Sreekumar
Language: Malayalam

The film revolves around a suspicious case of suicide which gets handed over to CBI after it has been declared as a case of suicide by the state Police department. 

The plot-line of the film was crafted around a real life incident, the Polakkulam case, in which a hotel employee was the victim. It was investigated by the CBI and was the first instance where humanoid dummy experiment was done in the state to prove a murder case. The lead character Sethurammayar CBI, played by Mammootty, is inspired by a real-life IPS officer named Radha Vinod Raju. The film came out in 1988 and the dummy segment was immediately spoofed by Sreenivasan and Mohanlal in their own comedic CID franchise  'Pattanapravesham', which also came out later that year. You got to admire the turn around time of Malayalam films in those days as both Mammootty and Mohanlal had 12 films releasing in 1988. Guess they didn't believe much in post-production. 

Film can be best described as a police investigative procedural which was hugely admired for how different it was when compared with films that came prior to this. There was no flab in it in terms of having typical entertainment elements like songs, elaborate stunts. verbal diarrhea from the lead and things like that. The sole focus of the film was the central investigation and the Malayalee audience, familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories, lapped it up. It was also quite popular in Madras/Chennai with it running for more than 200 days, an achievement that was replicated by only one Malayalam film since then, with Premam recently completing 200 days there. I don't consider it as a great mystery film since they are best done when at least some of the audience could figure out the twist by themselves by following the clues. That is not the case with this film or any of the other films that came out in this franchise since. A common complaint regarding these films are that S N Swamy could literally have some random person from the crowd as the culprit during the end twist portion of the film. There have been three other films released since then in this franchise and a fifth one is on its way. The second one, Jagratha, was also very good while the third one was quite average and the fourth one being quite terrible. 

Originally, the character was conceived as a tough cop named Ali Imran but it was Mammootty who convinced the director and writer that a pious intelligent Tamil Brahmin would be better. That is what makes the film stand out from other films in this genre with the lead using brain rather than brawn to solve cases. One could say that Mohanlal's character from Company owes a little bit to this character even though I am not sure about whether RGV had watched this film. The mannerisms that Mammootty brought to the table, accompanied with Shyam's excellent signature background score, were so effective that the audience were taken aback when he sparingly uses physical force during some instances. To sum up, it is a great watch and is quite a unique franchise when it comes to Indian cinema. 

PS: The actor Prathapachandran is now best remembered for his role in this film with an iconic line of his being memed quite frequently these days.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Mend (2014)

Director: John Magary
Writers:  John Magary, Russell Harbaugh, Myna Joseph
Cast:       Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Lucy Owen

A comic drama about rage, doubt, lust, madness, and other brotherly hand-me-downs. 

It is quite a hard film in terms of figuring out what exactly it is about in the first 30 minutes or so and that part is quite a slog. I was reminded of the Charles Bukowski films that I have seen during those parts since one of the character is like him. But from then on, you realize that it has got two protagonist brothers at its center and it is in fact a comedy. One of the brothers is kind of a drifter and the other one has got a more stable life and is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend during a trip to Canada. When they leave, his brother ends up in their house and he invites his girlfriend and her kid in. It turns out that the house-owning couple had a breakup during the trip and the brother is back at his house and he is cool with the situation he finds when he is back. It proceeds from there. The middle portion of the film really worked for me and there are plenty of laughs in it. The ending was kind of tame but its still a very good watch overall. What it basically portrays is the differences and commonalities in personalities of the two brothers. Both of them have relationship issues but one is more comfortable in his skin. The treatment is quite different in the sense that the audience is not spoon-fed at all and you have to really pay attention to figure things out in the initial segment of the film. 

So, the film is a very good watch it you are patient enough and give it a chance. It can also be considered as a watered down version of 'Naked' as well, I guess. It is set in New-York and the performances are really good. It is funny how you start noticing a particular word frequently after you figure out its meaning. Psychologists call it the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon. I don't think I have heard the word 'Moxie' prior to me watching 'Mistress America' last week and this film was produced by Moxie Pictures. It is an American slang word for describing someone who has got guts/nerve etc...  

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, December 11, 2015

Junun (2015)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Features: Jonny Greenwood, Shye Ben Tzur, Rajasthan Express

Its a 54 minute documentary, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which documents the making of an album of the same name in Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India, by the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, English composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Indian ensemble Rajasthan Express, and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich.

Jonny Greenwood's collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson started with 'There Will Be Blood' and it continued with him composing soundtrack for the next two PT Anderson films, The Master and Inherent Vice. This time the relation is other way round with Anderson documenting a music project involving Jonny Greenwood. We know the Beatles coming to India story and their use of Sitar in 'Norwegian Wood'. But it was more famous for them buying into the spiritual bullshit. Thankfully, there is not any of that in Junun and the collaboration is strictly musical. It is not a case of Radiohead music getting a tinge of Indian and Israeli flavors as level of involvement is equal across the board and the documentary conveys that with all the artists sitting in a circle and recording. I am a bit musically challenged and I really don't differentiate the sounds coming from different instruments when I hear music. Since this video captures each and every little instrument that they are using when its actually playing, you really can appreciate the complexity in composing involving such different musical instruments into a whole. 

Anderson also uses drones to get some breathtaking aerial footage of touristy parts in and around the fort. Also you get some idiosyncratic things that you will get if you are depending on Indian state electricity boards for power to record music out from a studio environment. The contortions that Indian musicians make is also fascinating to watch as they are not much bothered about their appearance while playing. It is a delightful watch and I managed to deduce that some of the lyrics were in Hebrew even though I didn't know that an Israeli musician was involved with the project prior to watching this film. That is some achievement from my part since I haven't seen many Israeli films to familiarize myself with the way that language sounds and was going purely by eliminating other languages and partly going by the way Shye Ben Tzur looks. He has been involved with Indian music for a long time and composes Qawwalis (a form of ecstatic Muslim devotional music), instrumental and devotional music in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu. He has also started composing Sufi Qawwali music in Hebrew as well. The album that they made, 'Junun', has not yet been released and the only preview that you can get is out of the footage from this documentary film. It is a very good watch on the whole.

Rating: 3.5/5  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Good Kill (2014)

Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer:    Andrew Niccol
Cast:       Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz

Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a US Air Force fighter pilot who transitions to UCAV (Drones) duty when demand drops for manned aircraft. As a drone pilot, with limited ability to control collateral damage during airstrikes, Egan becomes disillusioned. He begins to deeply question the morality of his job after his unit begins running missions for CIA.

I don't think you can limit collateral damage if you are flying a mission when compared with drone strikes on an individual mission basis. But the former will happen on a less frequent basis because of the risks involved and thus will reduce the overall collateral damage. The main issue for the protagonist is that he doesn't have any 'Skin in the Game' when he is piloting a drone and he wants to go back into flying combat. He is stationed in Las Vegas and is conducting airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen from there. It is another one of those films where you get the feeling that West is playing the victim after being the aggressor. You get the white protagonist who grows a conscience due to the atrocities he is being made to commit and the film is told from his perspective entirely. I am not saying that it is not a relevant subject but that it is a bit disingenuous to make a film ignoring the kind of life that people are having in those places where they can get killed without any warning by a drone that they cannot see. That is especially so when this is one of the first film to be made on the drone strikes program that Obama administration is conducting as part of its never ending 'War on Terror'. To be fair, the film does go into the war-crime aspect of it and other things but they come across as monotonous lectures and a bit awkward in terms of scripting. Tonally it is as if faceless CIA as the villain is making the poor air force guys do bad things. 

Overall, it is a decent watch if you are interested in the very relevant issue of drone strikes from the perspective of the perpetrators. Just that I think it would have been better if they also showed it from the other side as well. Drone pilots having emotional and marital problems might be a real issue for them but it is not the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of drones. It all seems a bit tasteless like the film 'Hurt Locker' was when it came out. At least this one doesn't act as as a propaganda film for US Air Force.

Rating: 2.5/5

Monday, December 7, 2015

Buzzard (2014)

Director: Joel Potrykus
Writer:    Joel Potrykus
Cast:       Joshua Burge, Joel Potrykus

Paranoia forces small-time scam artist Marty to flee his hometown and hide out in Detroit. With nothing but a pocketful of bogus checks, his power glove and a bad temper, the horror metal slacker lashes out.

Marty work as a temp in a bank and he is an expert in making small money by arbitraging various offers. First scene of the film shows him closing a checking account, withdrawing all his money, and immediately opening a new one to make use of the introductory offer of free $50. You can also see him returning things that he requisitioned from his office and making money off it. When his manager gives him a set of checks to find the addresses of their recipients, he cashes some of them by signing it on to his name. He flees when he finds out that it can be traced back to him and he is in a state of paranoia. He first hangs out with his work-friend, Derek, and later flees to Detroit.

The film is basically a character study on Marty and the plot is just incidental to it. It does get in under your skin and generates uncomfortable laughs since it can boil over to serial killer territory at any point of time. I was reminded of Todd Solondz films while watching it and you can certainly check it out if you are a fan of his work. The two main characters in it are certainly pathetic and unlikable but the proof that film works lie in the fact that you still care for the central character. There is one long sequence where Marty is having a plate of Spaghetti in his hotel bed and its excruciating to watch. That scene kind of sum up the film as it is a study on loneliness in a capitalistic setup.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, December 5, 2015

വലിയ ചിറകുള്ള പക്ഷികൾ (Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal) (2015)

Director: Dr. Biju
Writer:    Dr. Biju
Cast:       Kunchacko Boban, Anumol, Prakash Bare
Language: Malayalam

The film is a fictionalized representation of the environmental and health disaster caused by the misuse of 'Endosulfan' pesticide in Kasargod district of Kerala in India. Kunchacko Boban plays the role of a photojournalist from the 'Mathrubhumi' weekly and it is based on real life journalist Madhuraj, who also took up their cause as an activist after his experiences there. The 'Endosulfan' disaster came to the attention of the wider world after his expose in 2001. 

The film is done in a semi-documentary style and uses real people from the area who have been affected by it. There is no need to give a note prior to the screening that real life people have been used in the film because you will anyway realize that when you see it. Their health have been affected in a very visible way with physical deformations and it is the children that gets affected most. There are mainly two timelines for the film- 2001 and 2011 with the former depicting the photojournalist doing his story from the ground and the latter involving him and a couple of other activists attending a UN congress in Ottawa, Canada which would decide whether to ban Endosulfan globally or not. The official Indian delegation advocates for not banning it citing some bogus scientific studies and depicting the outrage in Kerala as Environmental Terrorism. I do remember the Indian delegation's stand becoming big news in Kerala just after the elections here, which the incumbent leftist coalition lost marginally. If that news broke before the elections, they would have won it easily as the pro-corporate opposition party of Kerala was ruling then at the center and were thus responsible for the Indian delegation's stand. 

Film is excellent technically and uses sync-sound which is always the better option. They are used in Indian films rarely because it is quite hard to capture the dialog when shooting at outdoors among all the cacophony. It must have been quite easy for this film to use it since most of the shooting is either indoors or in remote locations. The film doesn't have many dialogues and it becomes paramount in such films for the dialogues, when it happens, to sound authentic. It suffers on that regard during the 2011 timeline sequences as most of it are blatantly expositionary. The interaction between the characters during those sequences are almost unbearable to watch and you wish they had made it as a documentary as one can freely explain things using voice-overs. That said, the 2001 sequences were better to do this way since what you want to capture is mostly visual and you will anyway get the interviews through the journalist in the film to inform the audience about the context. Those sequences are incredibly moving and haunting. Kunchacko Boban didn't really have to 'act' during those shots because the realness of what he is doing would have brought it out naturally. Prakash Bore plays a significant role of a doctor from Kasargode and Anumol is kind of wasted in her role as an activist in those Canada sequences. 

Endosulfan issue is something we, Malayalees, are very much aware of but haven't done enough for those people who suffered because of it. It is partly to do with where it happened as Kasargod (northern tip) is to Kerala what north-east is to rest of India. Watching this film will certainly bring it home to you. Documentary culture is very much missing in India and that might be one reason for why this film had be done in this semi-documentary fashion. The plantations in which Endosulfan was aerially sprayed are owned by the government and it is ludicrous that they haven't still addressed the rehabilitation of those affected by it. It took a ten-year campaign to get Endosulfan banned and the current government haven't done enough to take care of the victims. Hopefully this film will act as a catalyst for the same. Not counting on it as there was only around 12 people watching it during the screening that I attended and five of them were college-kids having a good time for themselves while annoying rest of us with their loud talking. 

To sum up, it is good and a very moving watch. The Canada sequences could have been done in a better fashion and the film suffers because of it since it is interspersed with the 2001 Kerala sequences. There is no need to really comment on the acting because what we get is quite the natural reactions and not really acting. It has been screened at several film festivals including a special screening at United Nations, Geneva. The English title of the film is a literal translation of the Malayalam one- 'Birds with Large Wings'. The other film that I have watched of Dr. Biju's, Veettilekulla Vazhi, was a great watch. 

PS: One of the ladies getting interviewed by the journalist states that they were under the impression that it was medicines that they were spraying and not really something toxic. That is because, in Kerala, we usually describe spraying pesticides as applying medicines (മരുന്നടിക്കുക ). I wonder whether it was the pesticide companies that encouraged such wording to make them acceptable. It is only now that we associate pesticides and insecticides with toxicity due to increased awareness.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, December 4, 2015

Absolutely Anything (2015)

Director: Terry Jones
Writers:   Gavin Scott, Terry Jones
Cast:       Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar

A group of eccentric aliens confer a human being with the power to do absolutely anything, as an experiment to judge whether they should destroy the planet or not based on his behavior. 

The selling point of the film was the reunion of Monty Python team after a long gap. That in itself would have helped them to attract the cast towards the project. It cannot really be called a Monty Python film as only Terry Jones worked on a technical level with the involvement of other Pythons restricted to giving voice-overs for the alien characters. It was also the last film for late Robin Williams and he provides the voice-over for the dog character. 

Film was a huge critical failure with a Metacritic score of 34 and Rotten Tomatoes score of 9. I agree more with the former score. It is a watchable film with a very basic scenario which all of us must have fantasized about at some point of time. Most of the comedy comes out of the pedantic nature of his power which very much depends on the words he uses. You will get enough number of laughs out of it and is a decent enough watch if you go in with toned down expectations. Plot is kind of similar to 'Bruce Almighty' but the basic nature of the central character is very different. 

So, to sum up, it is watchable film made in a very lazy manner. Some of the expositions are laughably bad and some of its characters, very poorly written. You will still manage to get enough number of laughs and Simon Pegg always provide a minimum guarantee anyway. Just forget the fact that Monty Python team is associated with the project in any manner and watch it just as a low-brow comedy.

Rating: 2/5

Mistress America (2015)

Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers:  Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Cast:       Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Seth Barrish

A lonely college freshman's (Lola Kirke) life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister (Greta Gerwig). 

I still consider Noah Baumbach to be an up and coming director, even though he is 46 now, and it might be to do with the age of characters that are in his films off late. I don't need to read a synopsis to decide whether to watch his film or not and did the same for Mistress America. Its his second film this year after the excellent 'While We're Young' and you can see traces of its hipster commentary on this one as well even though it is much more on 'Social Media Influencer' types. Film got plenty of laughs and the nature of its humor is not as dark as it is usually in his other films. It also do kind of a twist without making you feel that it is a twist at all. We are shown initially that the freshman character is enamored by much older Greta Gerwig character even though it turns out at the end that the former was using/manipulating the latter as a subject matter for her story. Since it doesn't do it with bells and whistles, some may be put off by the director not explicitly stating things. The frequency of laughs kind of make you almost feel like you are watching a slap-stick comedy and I am sure that I have missed some of them on first watch. Greta Gerwig is very much Baumbach's muse and she also co-wrote the film like she did for 'Frances Ha'. 

It is a great watch and you won't probably see a better comedy film than it this year. I do think it will be liked by even those who are not particularly a fan of Baumbach. It is another one of his films that is set in New-York with the typical Woody Allensque color scheme and that is always a good thing. Performances are excellent but it does kind of get farcical towards the end when that confrontation scene happens between the two main characters. Got to say, on the whole, I enjoyed Mistress America more than While We're Young but both of them are great.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rock Star (2015)

Director: V K Prakash
Writers:   Rajashree Balram, Vivek Ranjit
Cast:       Siddgarth Menon, Eva Pavithran, Anumol, Mukundan
Language: Malayalam

Siddharth Menon plays the role of a lead singer of the band 'On the Rocks' and Eva Pavithran plays the role of an independent woman/feminist. Both of them are not fans of commitment and relationships. They have a one-night-stand which leads to an unintended pregnancy and the film basically follows what happens after that.

Writer of the film, Rajashree Balram, is known for her association with Femina magazine and there is really a feminist angle to the film. The leading lady does not look like a film star, which is really a welcome change, and the issue of having children outside marriage is dealt with in a middle-ground progressive manner. I was reminded very much of last year's 'Obvious Child' (IMDB) which also had a similar plot-line. Both these films have an unexpected pregnancy from a one night stand as the central theme and the basic difference between the two is the nature in which the fate of the child is decided. In USA, the word abortion is a taboo subject and is rarely dealt with in films or TV because of the hue and cry associated with it from the Republicans. Obvious Child broke the mould by addressing it in a matter of fact fashion. In Rock Star, they address the pregnancy in a typical Indian fashion with the male lead being uncomfortable with not taking responsibility for it while the leading lady is weary of him starting to influence her life.

So, while the plot and the intention of those behind the camera is well worth applauding, same cannot be said about execution. Script is clunky and the inexperience of the two leads do get in the way many times during the film. Siddharth Menon (lead singer of the band  'Thaikkudam Bridge') is making his debut as an actor and it is supposedly a comeback role for Eva Pavithran, having acted in some films. It is decent enough effort from both of them but they are not very consistent in terms of their performance. It is partly to do with script and also, it seems, the film was completed in a very fast fashion by VKP. He is a director who churns out plenty of films which can go either way in terms of quality. The only two films of his that I have watched completely are 'Trivandrum Lodge', which was very good and 'Beautiful', which was a decent film. Come to think of it, he also did Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla and that was also quite good. He came to feature films with an advertising background and is someone who is closely associated with the so-called 'New-Generation' movement of Malayalam cinema, which can also basically mean films that you will be uncomfortable to watch with your family. Rock Star is a film that could have been very good if made in a more ambitious manner with an established cast but I am not sure whether he could have attracted them to the project in the first place. As it stands, it is a watchable film that looks amateurish in many places but one should certainly applaud them for dealing with such a subject matter. Films does look much better when more established actors share the screen with the leads. I don't know whether there was a conscious effort from the makers to do it in a gender-neutral manner, but it was a let-down to see a gay character being used in a stereotypical manner for comedy relief. It just proved to be utterly cringe-worthy and totally out of place and not in sync with the rest of the film.    

To sum up, it is a decent enough watch if you are willing to forgive a lot of things that arise out of inexperience of its leads. It is a small-budget film anyway. Choice of Siddharth Menon could be due to his marketing potential as his band is quite popular here (I am not a fan). The film does start in a rather terrible manner but improves during its running time with it reaching its high-point exactly at the interval point. There are plenty of laughs just before the interval and it does meander after that. The ending can be easily predicted from half-way through. Couple of songs in it sounded good while others were forgettable. Another film that I was reminded of was 'Knocked Up'. 

Rating: 2/5

PS: National Anthem Status- I went to a Carnival owned screen where they play national anthem prior to the screening. There were about 20 people in total and around half of them stood up for it. I didn't.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writers:  John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Cast:       Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci

A cryptic message from Bond's past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

I am not really a big fan of James Bond films and the only ones I have seen in full are the ones with Daniel Craig in it- Casino Royale and Skyfall. Skyfall was comfortably better than Casino Royale, but that is going by the James Bond standards and not necessarily by the genre standard. It is a franchise which doesn't know where exactly to turn to and has been surpassed by both Mission Impossible films (last two) and Bourne series (next one is due with Greengrass and Matt Damon united). The pivot that they took with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale was a response to the success of Bourne series and one could say that considerable amount of humor was lost because of that. Bond series was never exactly known for being realistic and it seems MI films have managed to strike the right balance of Action set-pieces, ridiculousness and humor. Daniel Craig films can't be as 'seemingly' realistic as Bourne was, because of the baggage that the franchise carry, and is never as fun as MI films are. So you end up with films that are good watches but are not in any form memorable after you finish watching it. 
Spectre is no different and it is a good watch with nothing spectacular about it. You cannot really fault it for its cliches because that is what you get with these kind of films. Taking a leaf out of M1:5, double zero program is under threat of shutdown and Bond is on his own to figure out and defeat the villain. Christoph Waltz is as underutilized as Javier Bardem was in Skyfall. Film starts with a very good long tracking shot scene. Action set-pieces come frequently and all of them are good but the film as a whole suffers from not having any that would take your breath away, something MI films manages very comfortably. Global surveillance and related privacy issues is the it-topic, post-Snowden revelations, and that is also at the center of this film. But it is not done with much impact and just serves as a plot-point. Monica Bellucci is there as the Bond-'woman' and Lea Seydoux plays a role which is much more than a traditional Bond girl. It is almost confirmed to be the last Bond film with Daniel Craig in it and they have managed to give a nice closure for him. The plot also references and connects his other films as Bond, starting with Casino Royale.

So, it is a good enough watch without being anything more than that. Action set-pieces are good as is the humor but there is nothing spectacular about it on the whole. If I were to rank Daniel Craig films as Bond, this one will be number two with Skyfall being the first and Casino Royale the third (Not seen QoS). Product placement in CR was was just horrible and that poker sequence was also icky with expositions that felt to be so. Idris Elba as James Bond could be the boost that the franchise requires to stay relevant. TBF, it is doing spectacularly well at the box office as it is.

PS: One reviewer described the film as: "Bored...James Bored"...Hahaha....

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Criminal Activities (2015)

Director: Jackie Earl Haley
Writer:    Robert Lowell
Cast:       John Travolta, Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens

Four young men make a risky investment together that puts them in trouble with the mob. To get out of this situation they are asked to kidnap a relative of a rival mob king for him. 

It is really a low-budget film by Hollywood standards despite boasting of a decent enough cast. It is a fun watch if you go in with low expectations. There are plenty of twists and it is not very hard to guess the main twist since it is not really a unique one in this genre. There is also this Tarantino vibe to the whole thing with the characters talking about things that seemingly don't appear to be all that relevant. In films like these, more often than not, the ending twist can seem totally disingenuous that would make the whole thing very convoluted in the impossible sense. That is not the case with this film since you can pretty much piece things together over the course of the film even if you are not entirely sure about the motivation. It does take the intelligence of its audience for granted and that is always good with respect to the level of engagement that you get with the film. 

Overall the film is a good one if you watch with right kind of expectations anticipating it to be a fun genre film. Performances are good enough and the film does have a low budget vibe, which actually suits its B-film sensibilities. It is the sort of film that you wouldn't like if it was done on a bigger budget. It is also a debut for both its director and writer and Jackie Earl Haley also plays the role of an enforcer with good effect.    

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

मसान (Masaan) (2015)

Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Writer:    Varun Grover
Cast:       Richa Chadda, Sanjay Mishra, Vicky Kaushal
Language: Hindi

Four lives intersect along the Ganges in Varanasi: a low caste boy hopelessly in love, a daughter ridden with guilt of sexual encounter ending in a tragedy, a hapless father with fading morality, and a spirited child yearning for a family. The first two characters long to escape the moral constructs of this small-town. 

The film begins with a couple engaging in sex in a hotel only to be raided by the Police. The boy commits suicide and the police inspector takes the video of the girl in the arrested state as a tool to extort money from her father, who is a Sanskrit translator with a small shop on the river banks. This is not a surprising thing in most parts of the country where the state, in this case the Police, acts as an extortion racket and the 'family-honor' is valued so highly that people will kill for it. Parallel to this story is the story of a low caste boy who is in love with a richer upper class girl. The girl in the first story want to leave the place to escape from its morality as well as for better economic opportunities. The boy in the second story want to get a good job so that he could escape from the caste system which is much more entrenched in places like these. What the film does best is capturing the small town life and its mentality. It is made in such a way that you won't sense being lectured on the oppressive nature of Indian society. There are no cartoonishly villainous characters and even the police officer who is doing the extortion does it in a matter-of-fact fashion. 

Performances are really good and the only negative I can find is that there is a degree of convolution in the second story-line to add some artificial poignancy to the proceedings. It is exquisitely shot but not in a tourist post-card fashion. The Indian selection for Academy Awards this year, Court, also deals with similar kind of issues but from a larger societal view-point instead of the character driven model of Masaan. Both of them are great films. Masaan premiered at Cannes this year where it won two awards including FIPRESCI Prize in the un certain regard section. The English title of the film is 'Fly Away Solo', which captures the ambition of the two main characters, and the Hindi title of the film means 'Crematorium' as per google. Neeraj Ghaywan, who previously assisted Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur, made his directorial debut with this film and it was indeed some debut.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) (2010)

Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer:    Xavier Dolan
Cast:       Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider
Language: French (Quebec)

The story of three close friends who are involved in a love triangle. That would seem like a very cliched story-line and going by the poster you can surmise that it involves two men and a lady. But the difference is that the object of desire is not the woman in it. The lady and one of the guys, who is gay, have a long term friendship. The middle guy in the poster is a new friend of theirs and both of them have a crush on him and they know that. They are not sure of his sexuality and so the film proceeds from there. 

That is a synopsis that would make you wonder why it took this long for someone to come up with such a story-line. Film is laugh out loud funny throughout. Dolan chose to make it in a cringe-comedy fashion as the camera just lingers on the faces of its two main protagonists as they get confused and humiliated over the course of the film. Film begins in documentary style with several people talking about their relationships and break-ups. It also comes up at several different points later in the film and Dolan uses it to pad up the film and also as an exposition tool. He makes it a point to have someone explain Kinsey's concept that sexuality can be classed into seven types starting from strictly hetero-sexual and ending with strictly homo-sexual. Going by recent scientific studies it seems that only few can be considered to be in the extreme ends of this spectrum. The interview like segments in the film had several funny ones in it. It serves as useful editing cuts and to signify passage of time as well in the main story but I thought it was kind of lazy film-making and was not really necessary in the film. 

The other two films (MommyTom at the Farm) I have seen of Dolan's have been on the intense side and so the out and out comedy style of this film surprised me a bit, but in a pleasant manner. I had actually put off seeing it thinking that I would need to get in the right kind of mood to watch it. Great soundtrack is a given in his films and this one is not different. The recurring song in it is Dalida's Italian 'Bang Bang' song, YouTube video linked above, whose English version is familiar to me from Tarantino's 'Kill Bill'. Dolan was just 20 years old when he made this film and it got premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Come to think of it, Bertolucci's 'Dreamers' is somewhat similar in terms of its three characters but that one had a looking from outside quality to it as the film was told from the perspective of the new one in the group of three and it was the siblings that stayed mysterious. And while watching Heartbeats, I thought the main two protagonists were siblings till around the middle of the film at which point it was made explicit that they were just friends. Anyway, it is a great watch and certainly much better than Dreamers. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rajamma@Yahoo (2015)

Director: Reghu Rama Varma
Writer:    M. Sindhuraj
Cast:       Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, Anushree
Language: Malayalam

Film revolves around two brothers- Michael Rajamma known as Rajamma and Vishnu Yohannan known as Yahoo. They were orphaned when they were very young with their only asset being an old bungalow which they cannot sell because of documentation problems. They grew up to be very lazy kind of individuals with their main source of income being through monetisation of their home and its property.

It was first day first show for me and the director of this film was previously assistant to director Lal Jose. Lal Jose is someone who straddles two generations of Malayalam cinema by having a pretty old school way of storytelling in terms of manipulating audience's emotions while being pretty innovative when it comes to visualization and technical qualities. I am not a big fan of his but he was a necessary filler for Malayalam cinema to transition from the 90s style to the so called new-generation style post 2010. Lal Jose picked up this film for distribution as well and there is a minimum guarantee when it comes to films distributed by LJ (Neram, Oru Vadakkan Selfie). That fact and the trailer being quite decent prompted me to take a risk with this film.

It will be an understatement if I describe the experience of watching this film as underwhelming. It is the kind of film that doesn't descend into a level that would openly invite boos from the audience but it doesn't also have any highs that would make it enjoyable even in parts. Kunchacko Boban and Asif Ali are not the kind of actors who can bring an element of comedy into the proceedings without adequate help from the script itself. It is quite a numbing watch as the humor doesn't land well at all and we are paraded with a series of un-interesting and half-baked characters and a parade of unnecessary songs. Trivandrum Lodge was a film which had a similar setting for the characters who were all connected by the home/lodge that they share with each other. The characters in it were interesting and humor was excellent even though the last act of that film was a severe let-down. This film also have a whole set of characters that share a living space but most of them are totally uninteresting. If the comedy doesn't work in what is essentially trying to be a comedy film, then you don't have anything else there to save the audience in terms of enjoying the experience. The basic story-line is really lame. Illegitimate daughter of a rich and powerful figure trying to get justice with the help of the main characters is just a tiresome trope of Malayalam cinema. I am sick and tired of it. You could have forgiven them if there was at-least some half decent comedy in it. The only fresh thing about the film was its ending, which was abrupt and not exactly what you expect. But by that time you are just itching to escape from this tiresome film.

To sum up, it is really a poor film. The only achievement of it is how thoroughly average it is throughout its running time. Normally you get films with some high points and some low points but end up overall as average. This one doesn't have any high-points or low-points. Just average throughout. It seems they have already managed to sell the television rights for this film, going by the opening credits, which should make sure that it breaks even at the least. 

Rating: 1/5

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best of Enemies (2015)

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Writers:    Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Features:  Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens

A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. They were broadcast by ABC to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions ahead of the elections. 

Late 60s was a crucial time for United States of America and both these intellectual heavyweights (bit of a stretch to call someone from the right that) recognized it to be so. Battle lines were drawn to determine which way the country was going to go and looking from the perspective of now it seems Vidal is finally winning in the US. But the 1968 election was won by Nixon and the Republicans. Event though the film doesn't try to show in some length what exactly they were debating, the little glimpses that we get is enough to conclude that the Democrats and Republicans haven't changed very much since then. 

Besides being a look at the careers of both Vidal and Buckley from the prism of their TV debates, the film also gives us the context in which ABC conceived it as an idea for convention coverage. They were the least popular of the three network TV channels and had to do something unconventional to get some foothold. The debates that they conducted with Buckley's meltdown on the 9th one ensured them enough eye-balls and ushered in the era of punditry that pass as news. I am not disparaging it but more often than not you get really shit people doing it. People who are really good doesn't choose to face each other like Vidal and Buckley did. So what you end up with is farces like Arnab Goswami's 'Newshour' here in India. 

India is also going through a decisive phase with liberals having their work cut out with a cultural fascist outfit ruling with a dude having dictatorial tendencies at the helm. 2019 elections could possibly seal the fate of 'Idea of India' once and for all. Both Buckley and Vidal were people with electoral aims but couldn't succeed. Both of them recognized that intellectual strength doesn't count for much in winning elections. That is the same for India as well and the sad part is that it is also lacking in the wider mainstream discourse. 

The documentary is a great watch and since I didn't knew much about the two people involved as well as their history, it was a very illuminating watch. I had in fact heard about both of them in passing. Gore Vidal died quite recently, in 2012, and I remember reading an obituary piece on him. Buckley's name gets frequently mentioned in articles covering the poor state of affairs in the Republican party and the current Republican presidential race kind of sums it up. The film took five years to complete because of struggles to secure funding, get interviews, and uncover archival footage. I presume the footage we see of Christopher Hitchens was exclusively shot for this film prior to his death.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

വടക്കുനോക്കിയന്ത്രം (Vadakkunokkiyantram) (1989)

Director: Sreenivasan
Writer:    Sreenivasan
Cast:       Sreenivasan, Parvathy, Innocent
Language: Malayalam

A man with a serious case of inferiority complex, Thalathil Dineshan (Sreenivasan), is married to a beautiful girl, a girl whom he considers to be way out of his league. Soon, his love and care turns into suspicion. 

It is a common refrain that Sreenivasan is someone who made money by selling his inferiority complex for films. While he has written for many directors there are only two films for which he took up the role of director as well and Vadakkunokkiyanthram (Compass) is the first one of those two. The second one is 'Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala' which came out it 1998. Both of these films are rightly considered as classics of Malayalam cinema marrying comedy and topic seriousness in a perfect manner. The films he did with his frequent collaborator, Sathyan Anthikkad, tended to be social commentaries while these two films that he directed were much more inward looking in terms of depicting its central character. The title of the film refers to Dineshan's propensity to react to all things in the film's story-line by orienting towards his inferiority complex and suspicion just like a Compass, which always orient towards north.  

The film is laced with high quality comedy, like you would expect in a Sreenivasan film, and can be classed as a cringe-comedy, a genre in which the likes of Ricky Gervais is an expert. The character, Thalathil Dineshan, and his antics has been part of Kerala pop-culture as its very meme-worthy as well as highly quotable. His is a very exaggerated portrayal and one might raise an eye-brow at the convoluted ways in which his mind goes. When you think the film is ending with a very cliched happy ending, he gives a nod to horror films by suggesting a relapse into his old self for the character. 

To sum up, it is a great watch but I do consider his second effort as director to be the superior one out of the two. Many of the characters introduced from the midway of the film serves just as plot devices and he managed to create a richer universe around the central character in 'Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala'. 'Thalayanamanthram', which came out a year later, could be classed as a sister film to this one. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Seconds (2014)

Director: Aneesh Upasana
Writer:   Aneesh Upasana
Cast:      Jayasurya, Vinay Forrt, Aparna Nair, Vinayakan
Language: Malayalam

The film is a multi-narrative, told in a non-linear format, which revolves around a murder that happens in the elevator of a city apartment. Four unrelated persons of which one was a ruffian was in the lift; two were left seriously injured and one dead. 

Film was recommended to me by a friend, whose taste doesn't always match with me, and this one proved to be a bad suggestion. To be fair, the first half of the film is quite good when it follows the lives of characters leading up to the incident in the lift. One of them is from middle class background, while two others can be classed as from lower middle class. The last one is a from the lowest rung of the society. Their life is portrayed quite well with good humor. But the second half of the film is ludicrously bad with a very convoluted plot. It is not that just the plot is bad, but the way expositions are done is in the too bad it is good category (Salim Kumar character). 

So, it is a film of two halves with a very watchable first half and a stinking latter half. It does have a very low-budget feel in terms of production quality but it kind of suits the story though. It seems the story was written, starting from the central incident, and they just tried to make it as contrived as they possibly could. There are several clever mis-directions but the ending is just too ludicrous and laughable. Why would an assassin plan such a convoluted method to kill someone when there are more things that can go wrong than right. 

Rating: 1.5/5

Friday, November 13, 2015

അനാർക്കലി (Anarkali) (2015)

Director: Sachy
Writer:    Sachy
Cast:       Prithviraj, Biju Menon, Priyal Gor, Miya George, Kabir Bedi, Suresh Krishna, Sudev Nair
Language: Malayalam

Prithviraj plays the role of a diving instructor who is newly assigned to Kavaratti, Lakshadweep. There is a story behind why he has chosen to come there and that unfolds during the first two thirds of the film. He is in search for his love interest with whom he has lost contact and the last third of the film deals with whether he gets to meet her. 

Film can be best summed up as the Moideen-Kanchanamala story from 'Ennu Ninte Moideen' set to modern times. Difference between the two lies in its treatment. Anarkali works as a suspense comedy and the writer director uses the vast majority of its running time to gradually lay out the sequence of events in their love story in front of the audience. This is done expertly with him choosing not to dwell much time on establishing their love per se. This was one weakness of ENM where the development of love was done in a very superficial manner which was not in keeping with the depth that it required for the characters in the larger context. In this one also it is very superficial but the events that happen after that kind of strengthens it and gives credibility to the story. Life in Lakshadweep is portrayed very well and it wouldn't be surprising if the film gives a boost to Lakshadweep tourism. The last act of the film is kind of silly but it is done with a lack of seriousness and adequate dose of comedy that you forgive and go along with it. The slight twist can be seen from miles off.

Performance wise it is good from all concerned and Kabir Bedi is excellent as the girl's father. Priyal Gor is also very good and is suited for the role which demands a non-malayalee actress. Biju Menon is in a typical friend role for the main lead and pulls off the comedy pretty well although everything doesn't land all that well. It is not to say that he is the routine comedy crutch for the film as the comedy is pretty well spread among other characters as well. Its a role that could have gone to someone like Aju Varghese normally and am glad they chose someone more rounded, literally and figuratively. It was also a relief that they didn't add any cringy romance angle for that character as well even though an obvious candidate was there. Sudev Nair, who won state award recently, plays an important role.

To sum up, it is a good watch with a story-line that could have looked really silly but for the tight script and interesting presentation style. Songs are used to move the story and there are some breathtaking aerial shots. That said, one particular green-screened scene in the lighthouse didn't look that good. It is close to three hours long and they could have easily shaved off some twenty minutes. The opening scene where they show the lead's family is a very obvious one for the cut. Prithviraj had two blockbusters recently with Ennu Ninte Moideen and Amar Akbar Anthony and this one could very well make it three in a row.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, November 12, 2015

ഇടുക്കി ഗോൾഡ്‌ (Idukki Gold) (2013)

Director: Aashiq Abu
Writers:  Dileesh Nair, Syam Pushkaran
Cast:       Maniyanpilla Raju, Babu Antony, Shebin Benson, Vijayaraghavan, Prathap Pothen, Raveendran, Anil, Anoop, Fabin Raveendran
Language: Malayalam

Five friends get separated during their school days, meet up after 35 years and decide to head back to their school in order to relive their teenage indulgence- smoke joints of marijuana that was exclusively available in Idukki. Its better known as "Idukki Gold". As the movie concludes they realize that true Idukki Golds was their friendship and not marijuana that they were searching for. 

The film begins with one of them coming back from Czechoslovakia and taking out a classified ad requesting his long lost friends to meet up. The film proceeds as a series of vignettes from both the past and the present without a story structure. Malayalees are so used to the three act structure of storytelling that they soundly rejected this effort from Ashiq Abu, which is a shame. Nostalgia has been a very marketable genre for Malayalam films recently and the film makes a couple of in-jokes on that. You can also see the Grindhouse effect on the film with the past portion getting that treatment. Visuals are quite stunning and the Idukki locales are always a guarantee for that. It is a habit in Malayalam films these days to unnecessarily bring great visual greenery when the film or the story does not really warrant it. That is not the case with this one. One gripe I have with this film is that it relies too much on coincidences in meeting up with many of its characters. Many of them are totally unnecessary and are just there for the sake of including some of the comedy scenes. The characterization of  the uptight French wife was also a bit off. The awkwardness in meeting up after 35 years is conveyed very well though.

Overall it is a good watch and is Ashiq Abu's best film so far in my opinion. I didn't like '22 Female Kottayam', his most acclaimed film, and 'Salt n Pepper' was a decent watch. Better to not talk about 'Gangster'. Aashiq Abu tries to do something different in each of his efforts but generally falls back to rely on traditional tricks ultimately to make them commercially viable. It is also true for this film as he goes for an unnecessarily dramatic ending that is totally out of sync with the rest of the film. I wish he had stayed true to its original intention. The performances from the young actors who play their old selves are really good. BGM and the couple of songs in it, done by Bijibal,  are also very good. The film was adapted from Santhosh Echikkanam's short story with the same name. 

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

極道大戦争 (Yakuza Apocalypse) (2015)

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer:    Yoshitaka Yamaguchi
Cast:       Yayan Ruhian, Riri Furanki, Hayato Ichihara
Language: Japanese

In the ruthless world of the yakuza, no one is more legendary than boss Kamiura. Rumored to be invincible, the truth is he is a vampire- a bloodsucking yakuza vampire boss! When he is assassinated by an International syndicate, he just manages to pass on his vampire traits to a young Yakuza, Kagayama, whom he had taken under his wings. As Kagayama struggles to come to terms with his new-found abilities, things go out of hand as more and more civilians are converted to vampires and the Yakuza start facing an existential crisis due to lack of civilians. If that is not crazy enough for you, enter the super-villain teletubby, which can make earth-quakes happen.

In Hollywood, it is common to have a genre getting revived all of a sudden and it becoming a sort of fad. This is exactly what happened to the vampire genre, which came after the Zombie fad. Most of these films turn out to be trite but you do get interesting films that can be considered as genre-benders when the fad is kind of fading. That happened to the Vampire genre with three great ones coming out in succession last year- Only Lovers Left Alive, What We Do in the Shadows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. When you were just thinking the genre is kind of dead on its feet, here comes Takashi Miike with a film that mixes vampire genre with yakuza and an apocalypse. Just that he doesn't adhere to the vampire rules like not being able to handle the sun and things like that.

Generally Miike kind of go for very violent difficult to watch first halves which then transforms into comedies during the second half. This one is comedic from the get go and there aren't that many stomach-churningly violent scenes. Don't know whether it is a case of me being desensitized to it. The film is mad as hell, just read the synopsis to get an idea, and I interpreted the English speaking syndicate and the teletubby character as Miike making fun of juvenile Hollywood crap dominating Japanese box office. There is even a Darth Vader aspect to that character and the ending fist fight scene at the climax is also poking fun at Hollywood action films which generally go for over the top destructive explosions while filming action sequences, Man of Steel for eg. It is not really a fist fight, but just two guys finding out who can survive when they are just punching the other's face in a round robin basis. That is just as anit-climactic that you can possibly get. 

Overall, it is a great watch but might not be suitable for everyone. If you are familiar with Miike's work, you might be taken aback by its relative light-naturedness. I generally find his films to be in the very good category without being great but the genre films that he is churning out lately have been quite great. But I do think it is an acquired taste and you should be familiar with his work to enjoy the humor in Yakuza Apocalypse. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 6, 2015

Ben (2015)

Director: Vipin Atlee
Writer:    Vipin Atlee
Cast:       Gaurav Menon, Adish Praveen, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Anjali Upasana, Nila Noushad
Language: Malayalam

Film revolves around the titular character Ben (Gaurav Menon) and holds a mirror to society. It delves into things like goodness of Joint families, badness of nuclear families, goodness of small schools, badness of English medium schools for upper-middle-class and Kerela society's propensity to resort to God and religion which inevitably pushes them into the exploiting arms of religious freaks, Godmen/Godwomen etc.

As can be seen from the synopsis, the film is not a fan of subtlety. I prefer films to deal with things like these in a subtle manner which is not to say that you cannot make good films by being deliberately unsubtle. K. G. George's comedy classic 'Panchavadipalam' is a prime example for that. In 'Ben', debutant director Vipin Atlee, has made a conscious decision to have cartoonish characters and unsubtle treatment. Problem for me is that the funny bits are not funny enough and you get a sense that he is trying to have a rant through the medium against things that he thinks need attention. He has stated in an interview that the film and its story is very close to him as it is autobiographical and I would presume he might be the peripheral elder cousin. It does carry the 'Based on a True Story' tag on its sleeve. That can be an excuse for going over the top since the audience give you some leeway automatically. I just feel that he over-played his hand. It is another one of these social message films with some relevance and can be a decent watch for its target audience. 

The largely unknown cast does a decent job and the kids in it have a certain rawness which is good. Film is technically good with dynamic camera movements. The exploitative religious characters and such sequences are done quite well and the film could get some fillip if there is some unwarranted protests against it. It is not really a children's film and could become a TV hit in future.

Rating: 2/5