Friday, February 24, 2017

വീരം (Veeram) (2017)

Director: Jayaraj
Writers:  Jayaraj, Dr. Gokulnath Ammanathil, Based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare
DOP: S. Kumar
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Shivajith Nambiar, Divinaa Thackur, Himarsha Venkatsami
Language: Malayalam

Film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth but set in Malabar region of Kerala in 13th century, which predates Shakespeare's work. It takes inspirations from Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern Ballads) and tells the story of Chandhu Chekavar, whose name is synonymous in Kerala as a perennial cheat.

M T Vasudevan Nair had told an alternate version of the popular story by justifying Chandhu in his film 'Oru Vadakkan Veeragaadha', with Mammooty playing the role of Chandhu. I saw the film a long time back and don't remember much of it. Jayaraj's version have Chandhu staying true to the legend egged on by Kuttimani, his would be wife. Only add-on I think is that in this version Chandhu suggests that Unniyarcha (his childhood sweetheart) had also asked him kill her own kin so that they could get together. I haven't read Macbeth or seen any of its film adaptations and so can't make any comparison. Michael Fassbender starring one from last year is supposed to be very good and Kurosawa's version 'Throne of Blood' is supposed to be the best.

Veeram is a tri-lingual film with them planning to release a Hindi and English version as well. With a budget of 35 crores, it is the most expensive Malayalam film ever made. The mighty budget seems to have been spent on technical front with many from Hollywood involved for Music, colouring, action choreography and VFX. The budget is well spent as you do get to see where the money went, at least when you are watching it on a big screen with good sound system. CGI is quite good considering it is an Indian film and even when they look quite CGIish, it has a graphic novel like quality to it. The only place where it looked incredibly shit was that woman falling off a cliff scene which is also included in the trailer.

It should be seen more as a martial arts film rather than a character study. Kerala's ancient martial arts, Kalaripayattu, is said to have originated in 6th century, much before the Chinese martial arts which have been popularized by many martial arts films. The action set pieces in Veeram are very well done and the one before the interval, between Aromal Chekavar and Aringodar, is the highlight of the film. One drawback of the film is that these two characters end up being dead before the interval itself and that makes the final ste-piece of the film a bit hollow.

Overall, it is a very good watch and must be seen on a big screen. Many had raised eyebrows when Kunal Kapoor was cast in the role of Chandhu but the ancient Malayalam used in the film helps getting over the dubbing difficulties. They even had subtitles in some places for Malayalam speak. Film is rated A and there is considerable skin show which can be justified by the fact that ancient Kerala was known for its ladies going topless, even the aristocratic ones. Lack of known faces from Malayalam might affect its box office returns but I do hope it does well or at least break even.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, February 12, 2017

ഉയരങ്ങളിൽ (Uyarangalil) (1984)

Director: I V Sasi
Writer: M T Vasudevan Nair
DOP: Jayanan Vincent
Cast: Mohanlal, Rahman, Nedumudi Venu, Kajal Kiran
Language: Malayalam

Mohanlal is an ambitious assistant manager in a tea estate who along with two of his colleagues decides to steal company's money. He is the chief planner and lures the other two into his plan as all three are in need of money. The plan doesn't come off and they are caught by the manager who extracts a confession letter which he is gonna present it to the board to dismiss them. Mohanlal goes to negotiate with him, while the other two are reluctant and remorseful, and ends up killing him. His career takes off after that as he is promoted as the manager but his co-conspirators and a Police officer who suspects him are a constant nuisance.

I had caught glimpses of this film from TV but hadn't seen it in full. My friend Prajeesh recommended it to me, like Chandrika was recommended to Amala Paul by her friend Ria. It is an underrated gem of a film with a protagonist who is genuinely 'bad', which is such a unique thing for Indian films. You will have people pointing out Spadikam and Devasuram as examples of films in which Mohanlal played characters who are not socially correct. But you are meant to root for those characters and they don't stay 'bad' for too long.

In Uyarangalil, Mohanlal's character is a genuine villain but I still ended up rooting for him and wanted him to succeed so that the film doesn't have a 'Crime doesn't pay' message kind of ending. It doesn't take that route but does even better by leaving us questioning whether he is also a hero. It doesn't come up in a twist kind of way because I was able to tell what was going to happen next which means it happened organically.
The choices made by the character is consistent in the sense that he was forced to commit the murders to serve his survival needs and ambition. The best thing about the portrayal is that it is done in an understated matter of fact way. That is so essential because that is how he gets away with it for so long. I haven't seen any of MT's period films quite recently but I do think his films set in contemporary times are better and often overlooked. Uyarangalil is not perfect and Rahman's very obviously fake beard is thoroughly distracting but it is such a different film done with no apologies and the last lines, screenshot posted here, should be quoted much more. Other film I could think of where our big 'heroes' played a genuinely bad character is Vidheyan. Difference is that Mammooty's character is not the chief protagonist but the titular character is.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, February 11, 2017

എസ്ര (Ezra) (2017)

Director: Jay K
Writers: Jay K, Manu Gopal
DOP: Sujith Vasudevan
Cast: Prithviraj, Priya Anand, Vijayaraghavan, Sujith Shankar, Tovino Thomas
Language: Malayalam

Ranjan (Prithviraj) and his wife Priya (Priya Anand) had recently shifted to Kochi from Mumbai due to a transfer in his posting as the manager of a logistics company which handles nuclear waste disposal. They rent an old villa and furnish it with a lot of antique stuff which also includes a Jewish box, that is apparently a Dyybuk: a carrier for the spirit of a dead person seeking revenge. Spooky things follow.

The Jewish heritage of Kochi has been something of  fancy and only very rarely have been they captured in Malayalam films (I haven't seen Gramaphone). I came to know of it only after watching the two part Indian travel documentary done by Jeremy Piven, which is highly recommended. The Jewish population of Kochi is dwindling and only a few are left now. Ezra manages to weave this aspect into a credible storyline using mythologies surrounding Judaism giving it a very sophisticated feel even though it is basically a quite clichéd horror storyline (പഴയ ബോംബ് കഥ തന്നെ).

Biggest job to pull off in films of this genre is to give a good enough backstory to justify the revenge aspect and connections to various other characters in the film and that is done quite well in this film. But there is a lot of explaining in the film between the characters through out which is not a great way to tell a story. Many of the conversations are to just there to make the audience understand what is going on and it begins gratingly with a conversation between the couple about their decision to move, whose timing won't naturally be just before they are ready to move. Sujith Shankar who had played meaty roles in two films I love, has been kind of wasted due to the same explanation aspect that he has to contend with in his role as Rabbi ready to do exorcism. These things are kind of the baggage that Malayalam film traditionally carries as the makers don't just trust the intelligence of its audience.

The trailer of the film suggested its stunning technical quality and you won't be disappointed with it. Visuals, set and sound are all off the scale and it is a treat to see such neatly done films from Malayalam. The same producers had backed 'Guppy' and so it is not a surprise. The three songs in it are quite good and are used to move the story forward. Even though I caught this on an Atmos theatre, the first day first show crowd kind of ruined the horror mood. I would recommend that it should be watched with a quiet audience. Also please do stay for closing credits because it looks like Balettan is gonna destroy Kamattipaadam.

It is often a quandary to figure out a way to end films like these and in Ezra they choose to go with a twist. But once the twist is revealed, the rest of the exorcism part is a bit tame. Overall it is a very good watch but you are left with the feeling that it could have been even better. I would certainly like to give it a rewatch with a quiet multiplex kind of audience. It is probably the only proper horror film from Malayalam as most others choose to go with heavy usage of comedy. Even Manichithrathazhu, which is more of a psychological thriller than horror, had a humour thread running throughout.

PS: Only a handful of Jews are left in Kochi now and I wonder whether they will also take off after seeing the way Zionist fella who spawned Ezra in the film is portrayed.

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, February 6, 2017

ചെങ്കോൽ (Chenkol) (1993)

Director: Sibi Malayil
Writer: Lohithadas
DOP: Venu
Cast: Mohanlal, Thilakan, Surbhi Kaveri Vyas, Shanthikrishna
Language: Malayalam

Chenkol continues the story of Sethumadhavan's life after his prison term as he tries to get back into the society.

Malayalees should rename Murphy's law as Sethumadhavan's law because whatever can go wrong will go wrong when it comes to this character. It is a character which all Malayalees loathe to revisit unless one is really into sadomasochism. I had recently revisited Kireedom after a long time and found it to be an average to good film elevated to greatness by its latter half, especially the last 20 or so minutes. When Chenkol came four years later, it didn't do very well at box office supposedly and I guess Malayalees are not sadomasochistic much. Prithvitaj had recently described Chenkol as the most underrated sequel in Malayalam and rated Mohanlal's performance as even better than that in Kireedom. I do think both films are at a similar level and still rate Mohanlal's performance in Kireedom at a higher level because his portrayal of utter bewilderment as his life fall aparts suddenly was much more novel and let's not even go into the climax fight.

The film begins with a montage of scenes flashback to Kireedom during opening credits culminating with the climax sequence of Sethumadhavan killing Keerikkadan Jose which earns him his jail term. In Kireedom, our focus was chiefly on the plight of Sethumadhavan and we don't think much of the consequences to other characters in the film. Chenkol is mostly about that as he learns about them, like us, after his jail term. He is back in Ramapuram and it is the same Keerikkadan family that he has to contend with. Some of the exposition scenes and newly made Keerikkadan flashbacks are quite badly done and you kind of raise eyebrows when Keerikkadan Jose's step-daughter angle is opened up. But the film manages to tide over that as Sethu decides to embrace his crown by twirling his moustache. He has done many meeshapiriyan larger than life roles but the one in Chenkol is the most cathartic because he has totally earned it. But that is short-lived because Sethumadhavan's law again kicks back into action.

Overall it is a worthy follow-up to Kireedom but you do know what to expect when it comes to Sibi Malayil and his blatant tear-jerkers. I rate Sibi Malayil films like Dasharatham and His Highness Abdullah higher than the kind of films for which he is famous for. One criticism that could levelled is that Sethumadhavan in Chenkol is portrayed as a flawless personality while the one in Kireedom is a bit more three dimensional.

PS: I do recognise the contribution of online trolls to Kerala society but they kind of spoil your film watching experience because of their heavy usage of iconic scenes, expressions and one liners from Malayalam cinema. I laughed out loud when the below scene came up. You see the irony, I'm using a troll image of the said scene.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, February 5, 2017

ഒറ്റാൽ (Ottal- The Trap) (2016)

Director: Jayaraj
Writers: Joshy Mangalath, Anton Chekov (Short story: Vanka)
DOP: M J Radhakrishnan
Cast: Ashanth K Sha, Kumarakom Vasudevan, Shine Tom Chacko
Language: Malayalam

Kuttappayi is an orphan whose parents committed suicide due to debt troubles. He is now with his grandfather who is a duck farmer who stays in Kuttanad on a seasonal basis. Kuttappayi gets used to the environment but the grandfather has to make a decision due to his own poor health.

The film had won a national award in the environment category and so I had the impression that it was about the environment. Turns out that they gave the award just for its sumptuous visuals of Kuttanad. It is a place which, us Malayalees from elsewhere also, treats as a very touristy place but the preference is to get a motorised houseboat and get to the middle of backwaters away from all the people. I recently had seen one of Karl Watson's travel video from Kerala where he hires a small kadathu vanchi (small canoe) and takes a tour along Kuttanadan people's habitats. It is something which is quite alien to us Malayalees also. The film captures the traditional among the Kuttanadans in a magnificent way.

The story of the film is very predictable and fate of Kuttappayi is revealed in the first scene itself. That is not a problem because it is all about the settings and ultra rawness with which it is portrayed by unknown faces. It is an adaptation of Anton Chekov's short story 'Vanka'. Jayaraj is an enigmatic director who can churn out absolute shit as well as very arty stuff. This might be his most uncompromising effort but will still appeal to all and it is not a surprise that it won the highest award at IFFK. It is a great watch and I was certainly left teary-eyed. The name of the film translates as 'Trap' and is a reference to majority of people in this world whose life is a trap and their fates are very much sealed based on who their parents are.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Handmaiden (아가씨)(2016)

Director: Park Chan-Wook
Writers: Park Chan-Wook, Seo-Kyeong Jeong, Sarah Waters (Novel-Fingersmith)
DOP: Chung-Hoon Chung
Cast: Min-Hee Kim, Tae-Ri Kim, Jung-Woo Ha, Jin-Woong Jo

A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.

Park Chan-Wook is a director whose reputation will always be connected with the enormously successful film 'Oldboy' which is just one in his thematically connected 'Vengeance Trilogy'. Most people wouldn't have seen the other two in the trilogy but they both are arguably quite superior to Oldboy which relies a bit too much on the shock factor concerning its twist. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is quite brutal to watch and Lady Vengeance is a quite cool feministic take on the vengeance. His only other Korean film I've watched is the super fun Vampire flick 'Thirst' which is just off the rocker. His English language debut 'Stoker' received mixed responses but I found it to be really good with a very cool ending.

Handmaiden is a period film set during second world war. The basic aim of the handmaiden lady in the film is revealed upfront and twist is connected to this reveal at around the midpoint of the film. Film works like a comedy one mainly due to the mannerisms of the Handmaiden but there are some kinky aspects to it as suggested by the posters. The last act is quite dedicated to some torture scenes which just doesn't sync well with the rest of the film. The overall balance is titled too much towards comedy which kind of undermines the other aspects. It is overall a very good watch but in my opinion it is the weakest one from Park out of what I've seen. Technically it is very good and I saw from a review of it that they had different coloured subtitles depending on the language spoken, Japanese or Korean. Those kind of things I might have missed through translated subtitles.

If I were to rank his films, it would be:

1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
2. Oldboy
3. Stoker
4. Lady Vengeance
5. Thirst
6. The Handmaiden

Rating: 3.5/5