Review


A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?

 

For those of you who wondered about the radio silence: I have a daughter who is old enough to acknowledge me as something more significant than Random Tall Creature With Facial Hair, but not yet old enough to want to watch Citizen Kane with me and argue whether it’s the greatest film ever made. (Her current approach to the Universe involves three fundamental questions: Is it a pair of glasses perched on a nose? Whatever it is, can I bang it on the floor and make some noise? Can I eat it? Citizen Kane, unfortunately, doesn’t check any of those boxes.)

What happens, therefore, is that I end up watching a couple of movies on long haul flights (and I don’t even travel all that often), and on the odd night when I really ought to know better than stay up late. On the flip side, I’m reading a lot more (on my way to work and back). So I recently revisited Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series, and thought back to my experience of watching the two movies (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire), the latter of which I watched on one of the aforementioned long haul flights. And I realized something.

The reason why I grew increasingly less enchanted with the writing in the series is the following: It is set in sort of a haphazardly put together dystopia — a cross between a TV show and a post-apocalyptic nightmare that feels real and plausible as often as not. Just when you begin to feel drawn in by the despair, an odd discussion about fur–lined leggings yanks you out of the mire of despond you happily found yourself in just seconds ago. It’s a bit disconcerting, and prevents you from getting involved, almost always a bad thing in a book.

The first book worked for me because it introduced us to this world, and quickly dropped its main characters into a deadly, inverted version of a reality show (unreal world, real emotional responses), where the plausibility of the setup was not a principal consideration. The second and the third books, being increasingly concerned with the world outside the arena, worked less and less as a result.

When I look back on the whole series, I realize that what holds the series together, if only tenuously, is the character of Katniss Everdeen. This is one messed-up girl, perhaps even more than Lisbeth Salander, who in recent times has become the archetype of the Batshit Insane Ass-Kicking Heroine. It is in charting Katniss’ scarred emotional landscape that Suzanne Collins gets a measure of control over her book — the story is simply there to provide a backdrop against which to set Katniss’ inner monologue. Since the story is told from her perspective, and her narrative eye looks inward as often as outward, we feel emotionally anchored to some extent.

The movies, on the other hand, can only hint at all of this. It can be like any other blockbuster action spectacular. But as far as adapting the actual books go, they basically have to hope that Jennifer Lawrence can hint at the more interesting inner narrative through her acting. As good an actress as she is — and let’s face it, after watching her in Winter’s Bone, we all pretty much knew she’d hit this waaay out of the ballpark — this is a tough ask. She almost pulls it off.

Almost.

A famous actress — the Ms Meena of the title — returns to the little village she grew up in, presumably to shoot her last film. The villagers, most of whom live in reduced circumstances, hope that her visit will change things for the better. Much of their hope rests on the person of Ravi, the actress’ ex-boyfriend from before she became a star. The setup and the light-hearted banter in these initial scenes suggests a Kuselan-style fable. But playwright Rashmi Ruth Devadasan wades into deeper waters pretty quickly.

The story is acted out in a very loud, filmi, overdone style, with moments of laugh-out-loud humour including a song titled — wait for it — Oh Darling Baby, and countless references to films of a certain era. Some of the melodrama can be attributed to the fact that you are, at least in part, watching a film being shot. But it is not as if the other scenes are underplayed either.

The story, however, is a far quieter drama with a touch of the macabre — the kind of thing you expect to come across in a Stephen King book. By far the most interesting thing about Ms Meena is the way it manages to tell this story in this manner. The dichotomy between the story and the manner of its telling is best exemplified by the performances of the actors who play Ravi and Meena. The former plays it straight throughout, while the latter always acts as though she is on camera. It’s as if the person she had to become on screen was her refuge, and she simply chose not to leave.

But as the play approaches its closing scenes, you realize that, despite the lightness in the storytelling, the drama is not shortchanged. The last scene feels like a punch to the gut. We lead our little lives, and after our passing, the traces of our existence — the good and the bad — are blown away like so much dust in the wind. What remains, sometimes, is some memorial stripped  of context and meaning, like a name on a board somewhere, or a statue at some intersection. And sometimes, a few lines of a folk song.

There’s a phrase often used in the context of cinema: suspension of disbelief. It is applied as much to the films of David Dhawan as to the slick, expensively-mounted, action-packed star vehicles that inundate the multiplexes every summer. With the former, it is used as an excuse — leave your brains behind and enjoy the film, yaar. With the latter, it is used as advertisement — when Bruce Willis shoots a helicopter with a car (yes, you read that right, a car), we find ourselves enjoying the ride, and the point of all that finely-timed action choreography is to make us not care, for those ninety-odd minutes, how absurd it all is. At a very meta level, it applies to all of cinema, but let’s not go there now.

The concept applies to quiet thrillers too, in that crucial developments often hinge on things happening exactly so. Except here, the pace gives your mind a bit of time to wander, and that can break the spell. So how do you get your audience to stay with you? By making them care, not about what happens, but about who it happens to, that’s how.

A police officer calls his colleague to inform him that he has solved a murder, and meets with an accident while he is talking. He wakes up with complete amnesia. His colleague asks him to re-solve the case, while not letting anyone else know of his condition. In an abstract sense, it is an interesting premise, but it doesn’t take much to count the myriad ways in which this could go wrong.

Why, then, does Mumbai Police work so well?

The answer, I think, lies in two things. The first is the quality of the performances. Jayasurya’s character (he plays the murdered cop) is the least complicated of the lot, and he does it justice. Rahman’s top cop is not an easy character to play — opaque and transparent at the same time, in ways we don’t completely understand at first. He knocks it out of the park.

Prithviraj gets the toughie — his Inspector Moses is more layered than the average onion, and his ability to draw us into his journey and make us care is what makes the film work, even in those patches where the plot is barely plausible.

The second is the quality of the writing, especially narrative style which seamlessly interweaves the happenings prior to the accident and those after. Apart from getting the protagonist up to date with what he has forgotten, it also subtly ensures that we are a little less disoriented than he is. And yet, it’s a complex whodunit.

At one level, this is a procedural. But look closely, and you realize that it is actually three procedurals wrapped into one: how the case was solved the first time around, how it was solved the second time around, and an examination of why the first investigation proceeded the way it did. Add to this the personal torment of a man searching for himself with only scant clues as to who he used to be, and a few others with their own baggage to carry. All of these threads hinge on one crucial revelation.

Stephen King speaks of stories that hinge on the plot (where the characters behave as the plot needs them to, and hopefully remain consistent in the process), and ones that hinge on the characters (where the plot is simply the result of a set of characters thrown into a certain situation).

Here’s the utterly amazing thing about Mumbai Police: despite having so much plot to handle, it manages to fall into the second category. Exactly how often does that happen in the movies?

 

Thalaivaa begins, as all films in multiplexes do these days, with a fairly long and graphic advisory on the hazards of tobacco consumption. While I appreciate the thought, I cannot help but chuckle at the irony of placing it at the beginning of a film about an underworld don and the son who takes his place. The characters in this film could inject heroin into their eyeballs every morning and still stand a better chance of being shot or hacked to death than ODing.

But this is a minor quibble. By far the biggest criminal act committed in the film is the screenplay, which makes a mockery of the opening dedication to the director’s gurus, Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma, two filmmakers whose best-known films have been set in the same milieu.

While Satya is, in my opinion, the more accomplished script and is extraordinarily well-directed, Nayakan works better at an emotional level by creating a sigma field around the hero for much of its running length and making us care about what happens to him. These two films, between them, encapsulate the reasons why we love good movies:  Create a plausible universe whose workings are a source of fascination, populate it with characters who can draw us in, and find an emotional truth in the storytelling. Thalaivaa, in contrast, knows the words but not the music.

The film begins with the death of Varadaraja Mudaliar, the man who inspired Nayakan. In the power stuggle that follows, one man emerges victorious. But in order to insulate his son from the life he has to lead, he sends him away with a friend to Australia. The boy grows up into an adult who talks to his dad regularly but operates under the assumption that he is some sort of businessman. When he comes home and finds out the truth, circumstances force him to take up his father’s mantle.

Apart from the obvious implausibility of the idea that a man could remain so clueless about his dad in the highly networked world of today, this is not a bad storyline. But the script is an utter letdown. Neither does it draw a convincing portrait of the Mumbai underworld and the characters who inhabit it, nor does it make us implicit participants in the hero’s transformation from carefree youth to dreaded don (or uber-vigilante, if you will). A crucial moment, where he has to consciously choose a violent path rather than just react to the violence directed at him, is well-conceived but not as well-executed as it needs to be. By the next morning, the man has accepted his role and what it entails. Instead of a character arc, you see the end points.

The tragedy here is that this could’ve been a half-decent film. Sathyaraj brings an understated dignity to his part, and Vijay chooses to play his character on a quieter key than he normally would have a few years ago. Over the last few films, he seems to have consciously dialed it down, and this is not a bad thing. He gets one scene to unleash his inner ranter and raver in a hospital ward when he rips a rioter a new one. And even then, he raises his intensity but not his voice. After the high-decibel death metal thrashing of Surya in Singam 2, this is a blessing. The romance between Vijay and Amala Paul has an unforced charm. The story goes nowhere for the first hour, but the film is far lighter on its feet (in more ways than one) during this stretch than elsewhere. A crucial  sequence in the final third where hero and villain play a cat-and-mouse game while searching for an incriminating videotape is beautifully done. There are no jarring shifts in tone, even when the action moves from the quiet roads of Sydney to the mean streets of Mahim.

There’s around half an hour of pretty good stuff in there, which is more than most films can claim. But wading through three hours of dreck to find it is a bridge too far.

Spoilers ahead! Does that bother you? For a Rohit Shetty film, no less? Really? WhoWhat are you?

It helps, I think, to think of Chennai Express as a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu for the benefit of non-Tamilians. The film often feels like a distilled cinematic expression of the benign bewilderment with which the North often views the South, set inside a madcap plot about a North Indian stuck in rural Tamil Nadu among a damsel in distress and a bunch of aruvaal-wielding goons. Which is surprising because Shetty probably isn’t all that clueless. Look at the song picturizations, for instance — Shankar would’ve been proud.

As a native Tamil speaker, I found myself getting quite distracted by the bewildering array of accents on display — Satyaraj speaks like he normally does, his goons speak like they are from Chennai rather than from a little village in Tamil Nadu, the villain and heroine speak like they were raised elsewhere, maybe Mumbai… I don’t think it would be noticeable to people who don’t know the language, so their experience of the film might be quite different.

Having said that, it’s surprising and somewhat gratifying that Rohit Shetty had the courage to make a film where more than a third of the dialogue was in a different language, and unsubtitled to boot. Or that it found so much favour with the masses (100 crores already, I hear) despite that. I suppose it accentuates the whole fish-out-of-water scenario and makes one identify with the hero’s predicament.

The trouble with the strategy, unfortunately, is that we aren’t seeing a character out of his element. We are seeing an actor looking uncomfortable — apart from the scenes where he gleefully spoofs his own career (and I have to admit he does that pretty well), SRK doesn’t look like he’s having much fun. He either comes across as desperate (when he’s doing broad comedy) or unconvincingly flat (when he’s doing romance or action).

The writing doesn’t help. His character, a 40-year old virgin who has been brought up by his grandparents, is supposed to go to Rameshwaram to immerse his late grandfather’s ashes. His plan is to go to Goa with his pals (apparently in search of hot NRI ladkiyaan) and immerse them there. Now, had he planned to go to Rameshwaram after his vacation in Goa rather than the other way round, I could’ve believed it. While Shahrukh Khan has traditionally been very good at playing douchebags of a certain kind, this one just doesn’t seem plausible.

On the other hand, Rahul’s relationship with Meena, the Tamil girl he runs into (their meet-cute is a delightful riff on his biggest hit), is a strange beast. While the story itself moves in fits and starts, their relationship progresses more or less logically from fear (mostly his) to irritation to tentative acceptance to love. Except, that is, when Shetty feels the need to throw in “romantic complications”. Falling in love while running for your life is easy — people have been doing it in the movies for decades now. But doing it while your characters are being yanked around by a writer like that can’t be much fun.

The sole reason why it works even partway is the presence of a leading lady who, bit by bit, has become an actress capable of being better than the material. Not that the material offers much competition here, but still. Deepika Padukone gets top billing in the fim’s opening credits and fully deserves it — she is far and away the best thing abut this film. I didn’t expect her to handle Shetty’s brand of broad comedy so well — her thickly accented Hindi, which I would normally be a bit miffed by, works well in the context of the film. (Her Tamil is another matter altogether, I’m afraid.) There is the odd dramatic scene where the accent disappears, leaving the ungrammatical Hindi dialogue just hanging there, looking around desperately for voice support. But I’m inclined to forgive and forget in light of how well she does otherwise.

Her best moment is a wordless scene where SRK has to carry her up a long flight to steps to a temple. While he is focused on doing the literal heavy lifting, she is the one who has to do it in the acting department, and manages to create a thing of beauty in the middle of all the sporadically manufactured mayhem that is this film.

What bugs me about her characterisation, though, is the ending, where Rahul gets to deliver an impassioned rant at the oppression of women, declare his love for Meena and fight off a bunch of goons to win her hand. This whole development feels completely inorganic to the proceedings (surely there was a lighter, sweeter, funnier way of handling things?), and SRK seems oddly unsuited for material that has, for him, been a cakewalk for so long (this is essentially a reworking of the DDLJ/Pardes ending) . But what really gets my goat is how Deepika’s character is reduced to a simpering bystander while men fight men and her dad plays referee. Here’s a girl who has proved herself to be resourceful, funny and free-spirited through the course of the film. Not to mention the girl who impressively kicks butt in one the film’s more memorable comic scenes. Why make her a lawn ornament when it comes to the crunch? I know better than to expect a feminist masterpiece here, but letting the damsels in distress stand up and rescue themselves would’ve been a more powerful statement than putting the heroine’s name first in the opening credits.

If you’re gonna be stuck in a tin can for 15 hours (Dubai to San Francisco), you better hope that you can sleep through most of it, or that your airline has a decent in-flight movie selection. I ended up with option B, and here’s the result:

Olympus has Fallen

High-octane hostage drama set in the White House. Here’s a little cheat-sheet:

  • John McClane: Gerald Butler (disgraced ex-secret service agent)
  • Holly McClane: Aaron Eckhart (POTUS)
  • Sgt. Powell: Angela Bassett (Head of the secret service)
  • Chief of Police: Morgan Freeman (Speaker of the Senate).
  • Hans Gruber: Rick Yune, whom you might remember as Zao, the guy with diamonds stuck on his face from Die Another Day. More pertinently, after Nazis, Russians, aliens and Middle-Eastern terrorists have had their say in Hollywood, it’s now the turn of the North Koreans.
  • Money: World domination, or something along those lines.

You can fill in the rest. Yippie kai-yay etc.

It’s good fun, though, and the presence of someone like Freeman gives the whole enterprise a lot more gravitas than it deserves. There’s a scene where he realizes that he is more or less in charge, and the buck stops with him as far as the hostage negotiation or the fallout of the crisis is concerned. The tension in the room is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. Freeman pauses for a moment, almost visibly pulls back and relaxes for a moment, and orders a minion to bring him some coffee, with precise instructions on how he likes it. Then he gets to work. Those twenty seconds are pretty much why he earns his paycheck.

The rest of it is standard bang-bang — as a genre exercise, it’s above average, but it’s no Die Hard.

Gangster Squad

Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Ryan Gosling. Nick Nolte. Emma Stone.

The story: A bunch of cops taking down Mickey Cohen in late-1940s Los Angeles. Think The Untouchables crossed with LA Confidential.

And the movie still ends up being a dud. The sheer, mind-numbing waste of talent and resources makes me want to throw up. How the hell do so many good people come together without even one of them realizing that they’re making an absolute turkey? In the beginning, an honest cop saves a woman from getting raped in a seedy hotel owned by a dreaded gangster. At the end, the same cop has a loaded gun pointed at the same gangster, but throws it aside so that he could beat him up with his bare hands. This is the sort of thing you expect to see in a bad Vijay movie (except, he’s more likely to have sidekicks than collaborators).

Adam’s Rib

Husband and wife end up as opposing counsel in a case where a woman is on trial for shooting her husband when she finds him with his mistress. I watched a stage play adapted from this material a few months ago — Between the Lines, directed by Nandita Das. One of the things that struck me about the stage adaptation was the easy chemistry between the real-life husband-wife pair of Nandita Das and Subodh Maskara. Their interaction helped the play tide through some of the not-so-well-written patches.

Funnily enough, the exact same thing can be said of the film as well. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play the couple, which ought to tell you nearly everything you need to know about the onscreen chemistry. The writing is weak in parts, particularly the ending. But Tracy and Hepburn seem to be having so much fun out there that it almost feels rude to point it out. Hepburn is great as always, but Tracy is the standout here — so much of his performance depends not on the dialogue but his facial expressions and body language, and he absolutely nails it.

Oh, and Jean Hagen, who played Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, has a lovely little cameo here. The woman’s one of the most underrated comediennes of Hollywood, I tell ya.

A Day the the Races

Groucho. Chico. Margaret Dumont. Harpo. In that order.

Forget everything else: plot, heroes, heroines, songs, dances. None of it matters when these guys are on screen. In case it does matter to you, here’s what it’s about: The owner of a failing sanatorium brings in a new head of medical staff (Groucho) who turns out to be a veterinarian. Hijinks ensue. He comes clean in the end:

Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.

Let me conclude by mentioning a throwaway exchange between Groucho and Chico:

Chico: One dollar, and you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.

Groucho: That’s the most nauseating proposition I’ve ever heard.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about this, to be honest. Only that, a few years ago this wouldn’t have even pinged my radar. You folks tell me: Is that happening to you too? Or maybe you’re a bit ahead on that curve than I am?

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