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Friday, May 29, 2009
Queen Bee 2009
Kavya Shivshankar from Olathe, Kansas won this year's Scripp's National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C yesterday. The word that won her the title was "Laodicean", which means "lukewarm or indifferent, particularly in matters of politics or religion". Unlike last year, I didn't watch the full telecast this time but what I saw was enough to once again be amazed by the talent and poise shown by all the kids as they took a crack at the difficult words thrown at them.
As always, the Finals was dominated by desis as they took up 7 of the 11 slots. One of the finalists was Ramya Auroprem, who actually goes to the high school that my Kavya will go to in just a few years. Ramya went up to the 11th round but then misspelled "amarevole" and ended up tying for fifth place.
As for eventual winner Kavya, she must be a firm believer in the old adage "Try, try till you succeed". This was her fourth appearance in the Spelling Bee and she finally won the trophy after finishing 10th, 8th and 4th places in her previous three appearances. She was composed throughout and had her own style, writing the words on her palm and smiling after each round.
Excuse Me Mr. Kandhasamy... has a tune that's catchy in a conversational way but the lyrics carry the conversational part a bit too far, especially the crass-sounding Poada Poadi... bits. I'm not sure if Idhellaam Dupe... really qualifies as a song. The number of foods, relations, emotions and 'names ending in Samy' that the lyricist comes up with is quite impressive the first couple of times but the little tune there is doesn't hold much interest once that initial curiosity wears off. Kandhasamy..., probably the film's theme song, is fast and intense in a folksy way with its rustic beats and the gruff voice - kinda like Virumaandi's theme song. It could work very well in the background for some buildup scenes. The remix sung by DSP doesn't work quite as well though. Meow Meow... is a slow kuthu song and Priya's voice is well-suited for it. The One Two Three... parts of it remind us of DhooL's Indhadi... quite a bit. Allegra... is a nice dance number with some good beats. Mamo Mamiya... and En Peru Meenakumari... are both conventional tunes but do catch on easily.
The long-in-the-making Kandhasamy has been getting a lot of hype and is being built up as the movie event of the summer. But its soundtrack definitely doesn't match the hype. The tunes are, for the most part, instantly catchy but the complete lack of melody and the bland, crass lyrics pull down the quality of the songs.
Found clips(each last about a minute and a half) of the song sequences on YouTube that give us an idea of the picturization. Nothing to get excited about.
Excuse Me Mr. Kandhasamy... - Some camera tricks and nice locales but they don't dispel the crass feel of the song itself.
Allegra... - Some nice, fast dance steps from Shriya. Looks like one song that validates the movie's supposedly huge budget.
Idhellaam Dupe... - Nothing much here.
Meow Meow... - Nice sets and a seductive Shriya catch the eye. Also gives the only glimpse of the supposed superhero Vikram.
En Peru Meenakumari... - Picturized with the suggestiveness the lyrics indicate. Dance steps seems too risque for a film claiming to be a "film that will appeal to kids"
Mendocino is one of those places which we've always talked about visiting but never have in all these years. Since Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit the small coastal city, we went there over the Memorial Day weekend with the cousins and had a fun, relaxing trip.
After a 4 1/2 hour drive, our first stop was the Van Damme State Park, one of three state parks in the area. We skipped the park itself and instead, drove to Pygmy Forest, a small area north of the park where the unfavorable soil has resulted in the plants in the area remaining stunted. We walked a small trail that took us around the area and it was neat seeing the dwarfed pine trees and the teeny-tiny pine cones on them. From there we drove to the Russian Gulch State Park, which has a beautiful beach with a tall bridge forming the backdrop. The kids had fun playing in the sand, wading in the water and clambering up the rocks. After a short stop at the nearby Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, we drove on to the Glass Beach. This beach has a rather unique history in that it used to be a dumpsite and the waves have, over the years, crushed the bottles and other junk thrown there by the people. As a result, the beach has these colorful, smooth glass pieces mixed among the stones. It was a sort of fun treasure hunt for the kids as they walked around collecting the glass pieces and shells. After a perfectly-timed(though the womenfolk termed it hurried!) dinner, we again hit the beach for a glorious sunset.
The next day, we went to Fort Bragg for a ride on the Skunk Train. It was quite cold but the scenery - with the redwood trees and the creeks and the bushes and shrubs - was gorgeous. It was a fun an experience riding the open carriage with the wind blowing in your face and watching the greenery race by (though 4 hours is a bit too long for a train ride, especially when it goes past lunch time). After a late lunch, we spent a some time walking the new Pudding Creek Trestle, a wooden walkway which allows nice views of the beach, at the 10-Mile Beach a short distance away. Our last stop was to be the Botanical Garden but we missed that since it closed at 5. So we headed home straight away.
Last weekend, we went shopping for Karthik and one of the things we bought for him was a pair of sunglasses (he looks darn smart wearing them but that's a topic for another post :). Kavya, as usual, was quiet through the entire shopping spree, not asking for anything for herself and just playing with her brother and selecting his dresses with enthusiasm. But, when she saw his sunglasses, she finally confessed that she would like a pair too. We walked into another store to get them but couldn't really find the right pair for her and since it was getting late, we ended the shopping trip after promising her that we would buy her a pair real soon.
But with regular life taking over once Monday started, we never had a chance to go to any store again. When the hot weather came up again in conversation between her mom and her, her mom apologized to her for not getting her the sunglasses yet. Kavya replied "Its OK amma. Its not something I need, its just something I want. So its no big deal. There's no hurry." That definitely wasn't the answer I was expecting. While I myself, at times, have a tough time deciding if what I'm thinking of buying is something I need or something I want, I was really surprised that Kavya was so clear about her priorities.
For the most part, Kavya's a typical 7 1/2-year old. She is easily distracted, she fights with her little brother, she gets upset real easily, she gets angry at us and so on. But then she says something so sweet, so mature that it makes me realize that my little girl can be a real grown-up too.
While Vishnu Vardhan's first three movies(Kurumbu, Arindhum Ariyaamalum and Pattiyal) showed an admirable trend with respect to increase in quality, his next film Billa gave us the first sign that he had begun sacrificing substance at the altar of style, as the film's gorgeous look accompanied a story that was dumbed down and silly. He continues in the same mode for Sarvam, whose rich production values try to prop up a rather frail story. Since the plot is really lightweight and the little that there is is emotional, the film as a whole, feels rather hollow.
Karthik(Arya), an architect, is smitten by Sandhya(Trisha) after their very first meeting. Sandhya rebuffs him initiallybut his sincerity and persistence soon win her over. Meanwhile, Ishwar(J.D.Chakravarthy) is mourning the loss of hiswife and son, who were killed when hit by a car driven by Naushad(Indrajeeth). Refusing to see it as an accident, he begins to harass Naushad and his son Iman(Master Rohan).
Sarvam is essentially about fate. As the lives of its five protagonists criss-cross - sometimes with no effect(as when Arya almost hits Rohan with his car or Trisha runs into Rohan in the hospital) and other times with huge consequences - it shows us how the lives of random people can become intertwined with or without their knowledge. It reminds us of movies like Crash, 21 Grams and our own Aaydha Ezhuthu as we watch the characters, with the knowledge that their lives are going to intersect while they themselves go about their lives blissfully unaware of the fact that each of their actions is having a ripple effect that affects others in unexpected ways.
But as the plot unravels and the links between the characters are established, it is all rather underwhelming and the plot seems too simple considering its lofty ambitions. Vishnu Vardhan tries to make the movie seem like more than what it is with some non-linearity in the chronology, which he achieves by serving up the story one piece at a time and telling the stories of the characters in parallel as their lives proceed. But even these do not make the story arresting enough. In this way, it is the exact opposite of Dasaavathaaram. While both movies illustrate the role destiny plays in the lives of a certain set of people, Kamal's ambitious film crammed in too many characters and a complex plot while Sarvam has too few characters inhabiting a barebones story.
Though the romance between Arya and Trisha is essentially filler(what is important is what happens because of that love), it is what saves the movie from being completely forgettable. Though it kicks off with an all-too-familiar love-at-first-sight scenario, it is charming and funny. Arya exhibits a goofy charm as he woos Trisha and her character arc as she goes from dismissing him to missing him is charted in a believable fashion. How we view Arya's behavior in the latter half of the movie is completely dependent on us buying into the depth of his love and to the extent that we can easily believe in the transformation his character undergoes, it is successful.
Once the links between the characters have been established(through screenplay machinations that remind us of atleast three other Tamil films), the movie turns into one long confrontation between Arya and Chakravarthy. The bonding between Arya and Rohan has a few laughs but for the most part, the proceedings are filled with confrontations and chases. This repetition tests our patience at a few points and when we finally see the dilapidated church - which, as we know from the opening scene, is the scene of the climactic fight - there is a palpable sense of relief that the end is near.
After the rough, grungy look of Naan Kadavul, Arya gets back to the urban look and it sits on him pretty well. He is casual and likeable when wooing Trisha and makes a convincing transformation to the determined man who goes up against Chakravarthy. But dancing is a sore point and he looks completely stiff during the song sequences, particularly Adadaa Vaa.... Trisha once again falls back on her limited set of expressions but it suits her character to a T and so she seems quite radiant. The look of "this is the man of my dreams" that she gives when Arya is describing their dream house is just perfect. Chakravarthy is forced to walk around with the same expression throughout and his supposed intensity never has the required impact. Indrajeeth doesn't have much to do while Master Rohan seems a bit raw initially but gets better as the movie progresses. Thanks to the gorgeous photography(Nirav Shah) and set design, the film looks visually very rich. The cinematography makes everything look good - from the sparse interiors of the hospital to the gorgeous greens of Munnar. The sets and lighting during the final sequences are particularly good. Sila Iravugal..., the best number in Yuvan's soundtrack, is picturized very nicely in terms of both concept and visualization. The same goes for Kaatrukkulle..., one of the more imaginatively picturized duets in recent times. Suttaa Suriyanai... is energetic and colorful though the lyrics don't really suit the situation it occurs in.
After a few weeks without any films that really excited us, this Friday will see a high-profile one hit screens. Directed by Vishnuvardhan and bringing together Arya and Trisha, Sarvam has quite a few things going for it.
While so many directors shine with their debut film only to disappoint with their next - and subsequent - outings, Vishnuvardhan belongs to the select breed of directors who didn't make much of a mark in their first film but then went on to impress us with their other films. His first film Kurumbu hid its core story of friendship and love in a crude and vulgar package and wasn't that different from the other movies released around the same time, that incorporated glamor and vulgarity under the guise of showcasing reality. But his sophomore film Arindhum Ariyaamalum was a pleasant surprise. Its fresh storyline managed to surprise us and Vishnuvardhan smoothly and confidently handled the shift in tone that the twist led to. He again raised the bar with Pattiyal, a stylish yet realistic look at the Chennai underworld. His next film was the remake of Rajni's Billa with Ajith in the lead. Though the dumbing down of the original came as a disappointment, the film had a sense of style that, though it felt overdone, is rarely seen in Tamil cinema.
Apart from the improvement in quality, the other aspect that is obvious from Vishnuvardhan's list of films is his versatility - again, not a quality found in too many Tamil cinema directors. Kurumbu could charitably be called a youthful romantic comedy and then he changed tracks completely. While his next 3 movies all revolved around dadas and rowdies, they were not exactly similar either. While Arindhum Ariyaamalum could be slotted in the action-comedy genre, Pattiyal was stark and uncompromising in its depiction of the seedier side of Chennai and Billa was a stylish update of an yesteryear blockbuster. Sarvam was initially said to be a romantic film but its trailer(atleast the second half) points to it being more than that.
Sarvam must've been a nice break for Arya after the intense and exhausting work in Naan KadavuL. Inspite of being seen as a pin-up boy after his debut, the actor has not been stereotyped and has shown a willingness to take on a variety of roles. Sarvam will see him once again play a loverboy, a role he's obviously well-suited for. Trisha had quite a few blockbusters not too long ago but she's not had a good run lately with both her films in 2008, Abhiyum Naanum and Kuruvi, not faring well. She's apparently doing well in Telugu but will be looking for Sarvam to become a hit to improve her standing in Tamil too. Telugu actor JD Chakravarthy, Malayalam actor Indrajeeth(Prithviraj's brother) and a kid Rohan round out the cast of the film, which is about events in the lives of the characters played by these 5 actors.
Yuvan has shared a good rapport with Vishnuvardhan and has once again delivered one of his better albums in recent times. I wrote about the soundtrack here and my thoughts haven't changed much. Sila Iravugal..., inspite of Yuvan's singing, is still one of my favorites from all recent albums while Adadaa Vaa...(for its catchy flute interludes) and Suttaa Suriyanai...(for its strong beats) are still present on my playlist. Vishnuvardhan has a good eye for picturizing song sequences and the few-second clips of the song sequences seem to reinforce that. The colorful, chaotic setting for Suttaa Suriyanai... and the noir-ish costumes and settings for Adadaa Vaa... look fabulous. They've made me real eager to see how Sila Iravugal... turns out.
After a very lackluster first quarter, Tamil cinema has begun to look up with commercial blockbusters like Ayan and critical favorites like Pasanga. Let's hope Sarvam continues the positive trend this weekend...
Versatility isn't exactly director Vikraman's forte. Right from his first film Pudhu Vasantham, he has specialized in feel-good films that embroiled good-hearted characters in simple problems and in the process, elevated a relationship - be it friendship, romance or love - to a lofty pedestal. The simplicity and the feel-good factor helped us overlook other aspects of his films in the past but that got increasingly difficult as each of his films began to feel more ancient than the one before. After a relatively youthful Chennai Kaadhal, he reteams with his Vaanathai Pola hero Vijayakanth in Mariyaadhai. Hopelessly behind the times and completely silly, it only shows us once again that Vikraman is firmly stuck in the past and is either unwilling or unable to come out of it.
Annamalai(Vijayakanth) is not very rich but is well-respected in his village. His friend's daughter Chandra(Meera Jasmine) comes to stay in his house and with her sweet nature, quickly captures the hearts of Annamalai, his wife(Ambika) and their daughter(Ammu). But Annamalai's son Raja(Vijayakanth) is rude to her and Chandra soon learns why.
Vikraman is definitely caught in a time warp. Directors all around him are exploring new genres, tackling fresh themes and telling their stories with style and flair. But Vikraman continues making movies in which girls are asked to sing at their engagement. And do so without protest! Every aspect of Mariyaadhai feels dated. The story is simplistic with no opportunity for any dramatic tension; the screenplay is predictable and completely lacks suspense; the characters are two-dimensional and display no complexity; the script lacks cleverness; and the production values are more befitting a stage play.
While some of the aforementioned characteristics can be seen in Vikraman's earlier, more successful films too, they were obscured by the way he shaped the characters. Mariyaadhai's closest predecessors in terms of characters and storylines would probably be Vaanathai Pola and Suryavamsam. The older characters in those films were strong characters who carried the movie. That's not the case here. Vijayakanth is largely ineffective and does not come across as a strong and powerful man. Two particular instances, where he simply accepts help without any objections whatsoever, really erode his stature in our eyes. The younger(relatively speaking) Vijayakanth doesn't come off much better as he is taken for a ride rather easily.
Vijayakanth's flashback holds the movie's lone surprise. It is presented in a predictably loud fashion but it nevertheless comes as a surprising development. Not that it leads to anything interesting. As Vijayakanth takes revenge on the person who cheated him and Meera Jasmine turns into a jack of all trades as she becomes a teacher to everyone in his family, one isn't sure which of the two story tracks is sillier.
When everything else in the film is old-fashioned, why should the comedy be any different? Ramesh Khanna tries to evoke laughter through some congenial yet stale jokes as he is tricked by Meera Jasmine, chided by Vijayakanth and gets everything from soap water to cow dung thrown at his face. In these days, when someone getting hurt is being equated with comedy, the lack of vulgarity, crudeness and mean-spiritedness in the comedy is welcome but unfortunately, that doesn't automatically translate to humor. The jokes around Ambika's lack of culinary skills aren't all that fresh either but they lead to more laughs, especially in the sequence where the sweet she makes causes a series of unexpected accidents.
For Vijayakanth, the film is a rather strange choice as he is quite subdued throughout. While this is usually welcome, this is one movie where a couple of angry speeches or punch dialogs would've helped raise the energy level. He doesn't even get a rousing entrance, being content with driving in on a tractor. More surprising, considering the proximity of the release date to the elections, is the lack of political hints in the script, barring a throwaway comment about his photo soon being in every house in TN. He looks really fat though and the horrible wig just makes matters worse. Meera Jasmine matches him kilo for kilo while Meena, with no hint of the charm or sweetness she showed in her earlier days, is stuck in a thankless role. Vijay Anthony simply channels S.A.Rajkumar with songs that are slow but not really melodious. The Inbame... remix is a mess and is one of those remixes that increases our respect for the original version.
Aanandha Thaandavam is based on Sujatha's famous novel Pirivom Sandhippom (I guess Cheran's earlier film of that name forced director Gandhi Krishna to come up with a new name but Aanandha Thaandavam doesn't quite have the effect of the original title, which encapsulated the crux of the story in those two words). While I haven't read the book, it is safe to assume, based on Sujatha's other works and the universal praise that the novel received, that it is a wonderful story told wonderfully. That makes Aanandha Thaandavam not just a bad movie but a huge disappointment. Something was definitely lost in translation here.
Raghupathy(Sidharth), who has finished his studies and is jobhunting, falls in love with Madhumita(Tamannah), the daughter of his dad's boss. Madhu likes him too and her parents agree to get them married. But the parents change their minds when Radhakrishnan(Rishi), a rich suitor who lives in the US, asks for Madhu's hand and decide to get her married to him. Shortly after Radhakrishnan and Madhu head back to the US, a dejected Raghu decides to pursue higher studies in New York since "living well is the best revenge". It isn't long before he runs into Madhu once again.
Aanandha Thaandavam is a film that is brought down almost entirely by is characterization. Leading the parade is the lead pair, who probably sounded good on paper but look terribly wrong onscreen. There is nothing wrong with their fundamental characters but the characters are put across in a way that makes them close to despicable. Take Tamannah, for instance. She is supposed to earn our sympathy as a girl who is playful, naieve, meek and has her life controlled by those around her. But she actually comes off as an immature girl who destroys Sidharth's life by cheating him, leading him on and never letting him live in peace. Not that Sidharth is really guilt-free either. We are obviously suppsed to view him as someone who is unable to forget his first love and suffers because of it. But he seems to be someone who is dumb, spineless and completely lacks self-respect.
Sidharth and Tamannah are fundamentally good but suffer because their characters are not translated well to screen. Many of the supporting characters, like Tamannah's parents(with their money-oriented natures) or Rishi(with his ridiculously overdone NRI behavior), are intrinsically dislikeable though. Even Kitty, one of the few characters with a postive character arc, doesn't come off as very likeable with his supposedly-radical thoughts and advice. The end result of this is that the film's first half ends up feeling like the antithesis of a Vikraman film i.e. one in which everybody is bad. So its not a pleasant feeling watching it with no one to root for.
The film introduces a few new characters - and subsequently, relationships - once Raghu lands in the US. They, especially Rukmini, fare better than the others. Rukmini's family is a nice portrait of an NRI family that hasn't lost touch with its roots and the camaraderie among its members is nice. Even Kitty finally shows us that he is a good man. Unfortunately, this doesn't rub off on Tamannah and Sidharth. Tamannah finally gets the chance to earn our sympathy but her choice of actions and timing doesn't exploit it and instead, further earns our irritation. Same goes for Sidharth(to a lesser extent though) too. The fact that he goes when Tamannah calls him, hurting several others in the process, doesn't raise his already-damaged image in our eyes.
Tamannah struggles in a badly-etched character, swaying between seeming innocent and seeming plain mentally imbalanced. Sidharth is alright though he sounds a lot like Ravikrishna. Rukmini, who was in Bharathiraja's Bommalaattam, is likeable and expressive. Rishi overacts with a bad accent and an even worse wig(with a bald patch!) Kitty uses his soft demeanor well, especially in the second half. G.V.Prakash delivers a good album after a couple of lacklustre efforts and Gandhi Krishna shows a nice eye for visuals in picturizing the songs. Pattu Poochi... and Kallil Aadum... are both very catchy and feature some nice locations. Megam Pole... reflects Sidharth's mental state perfectly with Shankar Mahadevan's passionate singing and the dark setting and costumes. Poovinai..., inspite of the ridiculous lead-in, is pleasing while Kanaa Kaangiren... is choreographed well in some nice locations and with eye-catching costumes and props.
With the number of movies I see, I sometimes begin to think that it would be difficult for a movie to really surprise me any more. Considering the genre and the characters, I usually like to make some educated guesses about upcoming plot developments and surprise twists and in the recent past, I have hit the bull's eye with such guesses. Ofcourse, while its nice to see my guesses turn out to be correct, it does make the movie-watching experience rather disappointing. So it was a rather sobering and fun experience to watch not one, but two films that completely surprised me.
Of the two, the drama Nothing But The Truth was the better film as a whole. Inspired by true events, it is about an agonizing dilemma faced by a reporter and the consequences of her decision. Kate Beckinsdale plays the reporter who, based on a reliable source, has revealed that a soccer mom(who also happens to be the mother of her own son's classmate in school) is actually a CIA operative. Pressured by the government(led by a dogged prosecutor, played by Matt Dillon) to reveal her source under threats of being a national security issue, she steadfastly refuses, and is sent to jail.
Like Doubt, the film constantly keeps us thinking as we struggle to take sides on the issue of the reporter making her source known. The scoop destroys Beckinsdale's life as she goes to jail and is on the brink of losing her husband and her son. It has a negative effect on the CIA operative's life too as she is hassled by the press. And ofcourse, there is the national security issue too since the source could potentially be revealing other secrets to much more dangerous persons. All this makes us wonder if Beckinsdale's obstinacy about protecting her source is warranted. At the same time, it is easy to see her side of the story too. Revealing the source would compromise her integrity in her own eyes since she had given her word to the sourse. It would also threaten the very future of honest, daring journalism as the revelation may make other sources unwilling to open up to journalists. Matt Dillon and Alan Alda, as Beckinsdale's lawyer, represent these two sides and do so very convincingly.
While Beckinsdale's source is the heart of the movie, the movie at times makes us wonder if the identity of the source is simply a MacGuffin and whether the movie is essentially about Beckinsdale's conflict. The climax is a wonderful surprise. Like the Sixth Sense revelation, it makes us admire the director's cleverness since it was right in front of our eyes and there were enough clues pointing to it. The climax also provides closure and makes us completely understand one of the sides of the issue.
I read in Ebert's review that Nothing But The Truth was a victim of the economy as it failed to find a distributor and went straight to DVD. But that's the viewer's loss as it is a must-see.
The Uninvited also surprised me inspite of belonging to a genre where a surprise twist is almost a given. A horror thriller, it is about a teenager(Emily Browning) who was admitted to a mental hospital after her mom's death in an accident. On her return, she finds out that her dad is about to wed her mom's nurse(Elizabeth Banks). Some supernatural happenings convince her that the nurse killed her mom but her recent issues ensure that nobody, including her sister and her dad, believe her.
The film is also a remake of an Asian horror film but is more substantial than the other remakes. It has its share of creepy moments and 'Boo' moments but it also offers more in the form of Emily's loneliness and desperate attempts to convince others of the nurse's guilt. The revelations of the identities of the ghosts haunting Emily take the film along somewhat predictable lines and the movie turns into a thriller as Banks goes after Browning and her sister. But the film then pulls the rug out from under us with a terrific twist. The twist doesn't stand up to scrutiny but then again, this is not a genre under which movies are routinely cross-examined or seen for the airtight nature of their scripts. But it does turn everything on its head and totally surprise us.