Friday, December 24, 2010

"Manmadhan Ambu" (Language - Tamil) (2010) - Movie Review

Intertwining a string of serious moments in to a never ending cycle of slap stick comedy has been no tough ride for Kamal Hassan and his team in ventures like “Sathi Leelavathi”, “Avvai Shanmugi” (whilst the lift of “Mrs. Doubtfire) and “Anbe Sivam”. The last I saw him was his disastrous single man campaign of shamelessly boasting his talents in the wrong way possible in “Dasavathaaram”. Now with “Manmadhan Ambu” it appears there is a sign of complacency not alone in the role he undertook but also in the story and screenplay he has written.

Directed by K.S. Ravikumar the film follows a cruise ship vacation around Europe by noted actor Ambu alias Nisha (Trisha Krishnan) along with her childhood friend Deepa (Sangeetha) and Deepa’s kids to escape from the media and think about her relationship with her paranoid and suspicious freak Madanagopal (R. Madhavan). Major R. Mannar (Kamal Haasan) is the private investigator assigned by Madanagopal to follow and activities of Nisha and his baseless claim of her secretive meeting with her lover. All is well for the no nonsense comedy the team is known for but the mood shifts into utter blandness to a wasted attempt of emotional exchange.

As the film begins and slowly sets up its first act, I was neither interested nor bored which is a typical first act wherein we get to know the nature of the characters. Madanagopal played by Madhavan is an annoying and spoiled momma’s boy who comes successfully dislikable for the audience. Madhavan in his drunken antics was the only consoling buffoonery coming in the mix of the heavily influenced inspiration from Crazy Mohan’s write up. It does not though surprise me that Madhavan pulls it comfortably as he did in his debut venture in “Alaipayuthey” something similar in getting vested on the qualms of married life.

I viewed “Anbe Sivam” hours before entering the theatre for “Manmadan Ambu” and in that he plays Nallasivam as Nallasivam and not as Kamal playing the role. Not that he realistically embodies and makes every inch of it into a different nature of a person. He plays Sivam as a form of himself who has accepted the mishaps and misfortunes in his life and owns a philosophy of surviving through self deprecating jokes and helping people selflessly. There is a sincerity to the man he played out there with some minor smugness but in Major’s character the smugness completely takes over. He steers the story to delve in to the tragic past of his died wife and gets a close up shot to cry in his stereotypical controlled sadness.

The best part of the film is the song “Neela Vanam” shot with a care for telling a flashback not alone with a soothing melancholy song but with a video having every stamp of originality. After enjoying that momentary glimpse of excellence I was wondering the absence of that thought and effort put in that one song in translating it for the entire film.

Kamal’s Major does not shape up to be a man neither to be sympathized nor a hero we would like to root for. The expected spur of romance from Ambu towards Major is a twist unnecessary. While both of them are reasonably afraid to death in telling their secret, when the secret is out, it appears nothing mattered. If that is the point of their genesis of a romantic relationship, then it did not do that either. While Kamal’s some of the films have been mediocre, his acting has been the bedrock for the worst of the ventures but in “Manmadan Ambu” it is creaking of the man’s attitude in being hailed as the top actor in the field. That spills out and affects the nature of his delivery and failing to convince that it is indeed a sad lonely helpless friend Major.

Adding to this mix are supporting roles from Sangeetha, Ramesh Aravind and Urvashi trusting the actor and succumbing to a lost cause. While the initial parts of the film were at least leading to something, the film takes a sudden turn into nonstop attempt in comedy. The routine in providing comedy of errors and dialogue banters becomes an exercise. I lost track of the plan the crew of unusual people comes to the worst set up for the string of confusion and mix up. “Manmadan Ambu” which would have been a fairly meager attempt in drama becomes into an annoyance in the end ultimately making every character unreachable for admiring their emotions nor to make fun of their antics in a praising fashion.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Vengeance" (English/Cantonese/French) (2009) - Movie Review

“Vengeance” like any other revenge film ends with a strange melancholy despite the objective its central character achieves. It has a sporadic sense of odd beauty and there are completely messed up lingering side by side. Its strangeness in the actors, material and the presentation makes it accessible at one time and then it suddenly suspends out in the air making the viewers wonder in confusion. Directed by Johnnie To, it has French rockstar Johnny Hallyday and Chinese actor Anthony Wong who gave a spell binding performance in the Infernal Affairs series.

His daughter’s family were targeted and Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday) promises revenge to his barely alive daughter. He is a stranger to this strange land. He does not know the language, does not have any idea on the purpose of the killings on his family but all he wants is revenge. He is losing memory too and like “Memento”, he keeps record of the people he meets and wants to kill. Johnny Hallyday fits the bill of the new man in a weird town as he did in my all time favourite French film “Man on the Train” but also falls behind in the acting.

He was the man with regrets and remorse in that French classic while here he is a clueless man going for everything to achieve his goal. With minimal clues from his daughter he sets out for finding the killers. There were three men and coincidentally he runs into three other hit men. They are not his targets but he witnesses them coming from his neighbouring room after he hears gunshots. They see each other and he walks by. He immediately offers help to the police who are investigating the murders and lets off the killer walk by too. He knows how to play this game. He gains the trust of these men and assigns them the job of hunting down his enemies.

The music by Lo Tayu runs its theme throughout the film which never gets monotonous. Costello and the men Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Lam Ka-Tung) and Fat Lok (Lam Suet) becomes connected. In these cold hearted hit men, there strikes a chord. Costello after a while reveals that he used to be a hit man. Soon there are odd battle scenes of guns blazing and blood spatters from each of their bodies. The fights are all sometimes comic and sometimes stylish and most of the time random.

Johnnie To’s venture left me clueless as it had a unique presentation techniques on one end while on the other hand appeared disjointed. The emotions are stale and there is nothing much you can make of the characters. Kwai played by Anthony Wong has a presence more than the star value of Hallyday. He comes lean, stoic and with a style. He commands leadership among his men. Without any dialogue we know that Chu is his right hand man while Fat Lok is the side kick he plays around with. These three are rather taken by surprise by Costello. Being a complete stranger, they are pushed back by the daunting nature in which Costello approached them.

The film carries through most of it convincing us through these chaotic experience and arrives at a point where it should have called it a day. That moment is when Costello begins to completely lose his memory and wonders what revenge is. They leave him with their trusted friend (Michelle Ye) and that should have been it. Chu asks what does revenge mean when the man has forgotten everything and Kwai’s response should have brought up the credits. Johnnie To wanted closure in his film and thus the movie continues laboriously after that.

Granted “Vengeance” has an elegance in the madness of the story telling it takes on but Hallyday’s character never settles in. While the character himself does not gets the opportunity to settle in, the oddity in the movie has an expiration date which ends 20 minutes before the actual ending. I went along for the ride and had some moving and freaky moments in the film. Then it all tumbled down.

Johnny Hallyday has the facial structure that is simultaneously scary and powerful. It can bring the kindness with the slightest of smile and the eyes can kill you instantaneously. Yet the stale acting of Hallyday does not fit out here which was picture perfect in “Man on the Train”. Here it is out of place and Anthony Wong steals the show completely from the French rock star. Johnnie To uses special methods to feature the violence in the film with over the top gun fights and blood splatters like powder than liquid. With this kind of presentation “Vengeance” is both a good film and a badly featured one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Restrepo" (Documentary) (2010) - Movie Review

How much ever gruesome and realistic a war movie is made, at the end of it you know that it is a film and you move and separate yourself out of it. Yet it feels more guilty to write a review about it doing a futile effort on outreaching in the presumption of relating to it. While most of the films where the hardship, tragedy and brutality is nothing to even comment about it relating to, it is more like survivor’s guilt for a reviewer. “Restrepo” is the film one cannot get themselves out of it because it is on there, right there and you are there.

That last line of the previous paragraph have been said and written by this reviewer and many others about several films and this time around if there is a visceral way to mean it, I would. “Restrepo” is the documentary wherein Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent alongside the US soldiers in Afghanistan. More than alongside, they were within the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Batallion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The daring risk they undertook for this project to be put in the most active war zone puts me in disbelief on the passion they are towards whatever the things they are passionate about to do. It is uncomfortable for me to say that as their job.

The 2nd Platoon were placed in the Korangal valley in Eastern Afghanistan when they film begins. Being consistently fired on a daily basis they lost their friend PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo. They advanced towards a vantage point supposedly occupied by the Taliban and set up their outpost. They called it Restrepo. They were stationed out there for a year dealing with the locals and deafened by the artilleries and what not.

“Restrepo” is a film that does not have a heavy purpose as most of the documentary might possibly have to begin with. As journalists Junger and Hetherington were to report the happenings of that year, their report translates into a film which does not get marred by an agenda. For a documentary to go without an agenda is a dare in itself but when the soldiers out there fight to live and sustain one another day, that is the only agenda in their broad scheme of things. The politics, values, emotions and the perspective of everything does not vanish but are buried beneath the ground they stand. Till they head back to the world wherein fear is not the daily cereal, there is nothing in terms of straight thought.

The soldiers in the platoon provide interview opening their soul in the hope of getting some sanity back in their civilian life. The film begins and shudders the notion of film from it when the vehicle they are driving in flat faces an explosion. While documentary itself is clear enough for being real, it does not gets more real until you see this. The soldiers giving interviews give the routines and key points. They talk about how they felt about the situation rather than their stands in war or strategy or mishaps. This does not mean that the war is free from it but this film is not about those.

Eastern Afghanistan is nothing short of beautiful and that makes this even more worse. The snow covered mountains and the lush green vegetation combined with serene water stream amongst the patchy frozen parts of its shore are something the cameras definitely are not bringing justice to it. I can imagine being there and feel the air of course without the smokes, blood and guns. Only a viewer comfortably placed at the palms of his home can see those. May be those soldiers saw those and had their peaceful moments if only for short span of time.

Not even for a moment we see any targets. The soldiers shoot the mountains with all they have got and then some to eradicate whoever and whatever are is out there. The Captain and Colonel have their monthly meeting with the valley elders to have some semblance of peace talks. The towns people see the soldiers as aliens which they are and they hide their helplessness. In between these terrorizing moments they have their offbeat jokes that are the memories they can relive of those days especially the one which involves a cow.

“Restrepo” is a true documentary which cannot get closer and provide a narrow slit of opportunity for the civilian souls the torture of fighting. Every soldier knows before they get on the process of enduring these ordeals and witnessing their buddies bleed out but even with all the information, I cannot possibly bring myself to be in that situation and feel it. If signed up and get posted there, what can I possibly do to protect myself and survive another day? I am sure all these soldiers thought about it and they go through with it. What kept them alive or the ones not is not the question of the film rather it makes ask yourself that. It does not ask sympathy or empathy but the awareness of such experience. “Restrepo” is one of the best documentaries I have seen.

Monday, December 06, 2010

"Triad Election" (Language - Cantonese) (2006) - Movie Review

“Triad Election” is merciless in its story telling. The whole tradition of honour, code and respect are bluntly removed and the ground truth of dog eat dog world is shown without any cover up, glossiness or glamour. The main player the movie portrays is Jimmy (Louis Koo) who is well dressed, terse in his speech and quite focussed on his immediate objectives. How crazy he can get those in focussing we learn as the film progresses. Johnnie To’s this film is a sequel to “Election” unseen by me which I am so curious to look forward to reviewing.

In the gangster community it is two years term for a leader. Leader gets the power and the driving factor of that power, money. Lok (Simon Yam) has successfully reigned and it is time for the election. Jimmy is an upcoming businessperson. He worked his way from pirated porn DVD business to real estate contracts. He has all the ambition to go legit and has no desire to run for the election. Then there is Kun (Gordon Lam), who cannot wait to get the throne. So the thing is simple, Kun can get his job and Jimmy can forget about the triad, Lok we do not know his objectives. So Jimmy can begin his aspiration for normal tycoon life. Ofcourse not.

Johnnie To knows that audience are waiting for the turn to get Jimmy into the race. We like Jimmy because he is the only member in this movie who has semblance of having a peaceful family life and hoping for a better tomorrow for his unborn children. Later in the film we would see how he unleashes his darkness and does it with a stale face. That not alone disgusts us but vigorously splashes a bucketful of icy cold water on our face to say that there is no good soul in this trade.

As much as the veterans of this crime business conduct it in the name of tradition, it is a hypocrisy on its supreme nature. When the film begins, a member of the community explains the reason for such a society to have conflict free and peaceful business ambience. It is an organism of itself and when there is power, there is greed and everything that goes with it. The people running for the election are capable of anything because they are all criminals. Another thing is the legitimacy they have created for generations by having such elections.

There are no smart strategy in dealing the problem of outrunning their opponents. It is pure and simple, kill them. Hence comes the bloodbath on both the sides. Jimmy hires a hit man and he does not respect or fear Jimmy. He comes with the clear agenda, you get the service for what you pay for. He can do unspeakable things and witness those but he needs more money. None of these men are not shown to have any kind of pleasure or fun. There are restaurants and clubs wherein women wander around and sing for the entertainment but no one is listening or seeing. This world is ruled by men.

The violence as much as I speak is not shown in gory details but the awareness are of it is nothing short of visceral horror. Why does Jimmy all of a sudden bursts with a motto to get his job done through any way possible? He does not like to be a gangster but he has to in this scenario to fulfill his dream of living in a serene hill and no one around apart from his lovely wife and children they are going to have. He sees this exercise clinically and assumes that somewhere in the close vicinity he can return to his dream.

“Triad Election” is a story of how criminals have no honour or rules. Their motivation beyond money and power is even not shown. We do not see them having fun or even cracking a joke. They are completely serious in every waking moment and somehow that has become their predetermined way of life. The story goes on to the obvious nature of Jimmy being the better player but in the end there is no celebration.

What I liked about Johnnie To’s film is his attraction and aversion towards this world. In a way he loves this genre with a passion for film making but at the same time he is repulsed by the true nature of these people. Hence as much as he goes for the cool shots and disturbing music to elevate the film aesthetically, he makes sure that there are no heroes, no villains or none to be happy for. It is a sad life and it will always be one till the end for all these people.