Thursday, June 28, 2007

Best Sci-Fi Movies

RottenTomatoes, the website that aggregates movie reviews from all over the web, has come up with a list of the top 100, best-reviewed science-fiction films of all time. Without actually counting, I’d say I’ve seen about half the films on the list but as in most lists, it was fun seeing the films on their list, trying to guess which films made the cut and reading up about the ones I haven't seen. There were a few surprises, both pleasant (how did this film come so low?) and unpleasant (they gave this one such a high ranking?!) but we know that such lists are always subjective and the basis of fun discussions rather than universally-accepted lists to be argued about.

I prefer sci-fi films that offer up a mix of story and action. Films that focus only on the former(like 2001: A Space Odyssey) tend to be too slow and talky for me while films that are high on action(like Independence Day) offer good entertainment but are rarely memorable and don’t stand up well on repeat viewings. As always, there are exceptions to these in both categories but for the most part, I prefer my sci-fi cocktails to have a good mix of both action and story.

That said, following are the sci-fi films I’d rate as my personal top ten favorites (the numbers in parentheses indicate their rank on the RottenTomatoes list).

10. Alien (#4)
The first film that tackled the "haunted house in space" theme, it is atmospheric rather than gory. It takes a little time to get the action going but is a relentlessly thrilling ride after that.

9. Signs (#83)
Quite possibly the alien invasion film that accords the least importance to the actual aliens themselves, it builds the suspense up gradually before closing with an exhilarating climax where all pieces fall into place. Shyamalan mixed the suspense and the humor very well too.

8. The Empire Strikes Back (#6)
The best of the Star Wars series, it is the darkest film of the lot and contains undeniably the most shockingly memorable moment in the entire series. Made more than 20 years ago, the special effects still manage to astonish us.

7. Back to the Future (#22)
My favorite time-travel movie, the movie creates an unimaginably tangled knot(by making Michael J. Fox travel to the past and getting his own mother to develop a crush on him) and then proceeds to unravel it in a delightful fashion. Has a ton of incredibly clever moments scattered throughout.

6. Jurassic Park (#62)
With amazingly real dinosaurs and marvelous set pieces, Spielberg creates a rousing experience with this film. After the initial setup, the movie is just one long chase and keeps us on the edge of our seats until the credits roll.

5. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (#1)
A heartwarming tale of an alien stuck on Earth and becoming friends with a boy and his sister(a very young Drew Barrymore), this is a fairytale for all ages. Adeptly combining comedy and sentiments, the film had an exhilarating last segment as the kids help ET escape.

4. Matrix (#32)
Brilliant in concept and pathbreaking in action sequences, this was a truly explosive movie. Style oozes out of every frame and the movie makes us think while dazzling us with its kinetic stunts. Too bad neither of its sequels came even close to it in quality.

3. Aliens (#10)
James Cameron replaced Alien's suspense and creepiness with all-out action in this sequel and what a ride it turns out to be. Throwing a child into the mix to raise the stakes, the movie has us in our grip with thrilling chases and spectacular fights.

2. Minority Report (#5)
A movie I've liked a bit more on each viewing, the film is just the perfect mix of intriguing concept and high-voltage stunts. The theme of precognitive crimefighters offers wonderful possibilities and Spielberg exploits them to the fullest extent. Really intelligent and amazing action sequences.

1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (#27)
Eye-popping special effects, terrific action, intelligent story and delicious one-liners make this my favorite. The shape-changing cyborg remains one of cinema's most heartless and relentless villains and the relationship between Schwarzenegger and the young boy was developed well enough to make the last scene quite touching.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Day Trip - Lake Tahoe

We made a day trip to Lake Tahoe last Saturday. The catalyst for this trip was fellow-blogger Munimma , who I know from college back in India. She flew down to Reno with her family for a friend's wedding and since she was planning to spend Saturday at Lake Tahoe anyway, we decided to meet up. She too has 2 kids in about the same age range as Kavya and Karthik and so we knew the kids would have fun too.

We went straight to Squaw Valley Resort, which had cable car rides to the top of the mountain. They had a Fine Arts festival going on and so the courtyard was filled with artists and sculptors displaying their wares. The crowds and the live music added to the atmosphere and it was fun walking around. We had lunch at Pizza & Pasta (awesome pizza and pasta, btw!), an eatery at the resort, and then headed up the mountain. It had great views but it was really windy and so we couldn't do any of the hikes at the top. After coming down, Kavya had her share of fun on something called the 'Sky Jump', where she was tied at the waist with some elastic wires and then allowed to jump up and down on a trampoline. It was quite a new experience for her and she was thrilled.

We then drove to King's Beach. It was a short drive since the beach, like the resort, is also in North Lake Tahoe but even the short drive was quite rewarding with beautiful glimpses of the sparkling blue lake with mountains in the background. Inspite of being in California all these years, I'm ashamed to say that we haven't been to the beach all that much. Even when the weather's sunny, the water's almost always really cold and we found that we couldn't wade in the water for all that long. The water was pretty cold here too but the kids had fun and we had a tough time dragging them away to head back home.

Nice weather, gorgeous scenery, good food, fun at the beach and catching up with an old friend... a day well-spent :) Some photos from the trip can be seen here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

RIP - Jeeva

When I watch a movie, the actors, the director and the music director are who I notice first. There must be something special - something that really catches my eye - for me to seek out the names of other behind-the-scenes technicians like the cinematographer. Jeeva was one such cinematographer who made me seek out his name in movies he worked on. After working as cinematographer on some fantastic movies, he went on to make a name for himself as director too and his premature death yesterday in Russia came as a big shock.

Jeeva certainly learned from the best since he worked as an assistant to P.C.Sreeram. His first film as cinematographer was the Malayalam film Abhimanyu, directed by Priyadarshan (he worked with Priyadarshan in many of his later Hindi films, like Hera Pheri, Hulchul, Bhaagam Bhaag, etc.). In Tamil, Jeeva's name has figured on the credits of some big films. He was responsible in no small part for the sophisticated sheen of Shankar's first three ventures Gentleman, Kaadhalan and Indian. His work was particularly memorable in Indian where, whether in the grandeur of Kappaleri Poyaachu... or the intimacy of Pachai Kiligal..., his camera brought the film alive in front of our eyes. He then moved to direction but still left his mark as cinematographer in movies like Run and Sachein.

Jeeva turned director with the fantastic, very different 12B. Bravely selecting the very unique theme of parallel timelines, he guided the complicated screenplay with a firm hand, ending with a whopper of a climax. His second film Ullam Ketkume ran into a host of problems, including a title change, leading to a very delayed release. But luck favored him when the film came out since actors like Arya and Asin, for whom Ullam Ketkume was the debut film, had already become famous due to other releases. The film itself was a cute college romance, one of the few good films in that genre, and went on to become a hit. His last film Unnaale Unnaale was again a romance. It was too talky and not very practical but caught the fancy of the youth and became a hit. Jeeva was currently working on his fourth film, Dhaam Dhoom, with 'Jayam' Ravi, when suffered the cardiac arrest.

Tamil cinema has lost a very talented cinematographer and director. May his soul rest in peace...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Rajni & Kamal

Its always nice seeing Tamil cinema's 2 biggest stars together. Considered professional rivals at one point(oh, how many times I've participated in the Rajni vs Kamal debate in school and college!), they've been good friends for a while now, always praising and wishing the best for each other. The last couple of days have provided two opportunities for these two stars to share the stage...

First was the audio launch of Thottaal Poo Malarum, P.Vasu's film in which he is introducing his son Sakthi. Looks like Vasu shares a good rapport with both Rajni and Kamal(his friendship with Rajni is not a surprise considering he has directed him before and has just given him the biggest hit of his career in Chandramukhi but I don't think he has ever directed Kamal) since he managed to get the two stars to attend the launch of the film and now he got the two to participate in the audio release too. Music is by Yuvan Shankar Raja, who has just released a great album for Satham Podaathey.

The second function where they appeared together was the Chandramukhi success function, which was held since the film has now become the longest-running film in South India, having run for 804 days. Chief Minister Karunanidhi presided over the function while Kamal and K.Balachander were chief guests.

Dhanush and Aishwarya, and Sridevi, looking as gorgeous as ever, were among the guests. Jo's brother-in-law Karthi came to collect her trophy since Jo is ofcourse very pregnant now. The function was hosted by Sneha(who was apparently considered for Nayantara's role. I didn't know that). Looks like Rajni, as always, had a great speech sprinkled with anecdotes while the others obviously praised him to the skies. Can't wait for this one to be telecast on Sun TV...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Day Trip - Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park

During the trip to Solvang last December, we had stopped briefly at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is the biggest and most popular park in Big Sur. We had planned to hike to Pfeiffer Falls in the park but since the hike was supposed to take 40-60 minutes, we skipped that and drove on to Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park, where we took the stroller-friendly trail to McWay Falls. Last Saturday we returned to Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park but made it a day trip with only the park on our agenda.

The park has a lot of parking in different areas and several picnic tables for lunch, which was our first order of business. We then went on the trail to Pfeiffer Falls. It was a pretty tame trail even for us inexperienced hikers but with 2 little kids who insisted on walking by themselves, it felt like a long trek! But the trail did take us through some Redwood forests and crossed the park's creek at a few places and so it was quite cool and scenic. The waterfall too wasn't much to look at especially since its Summer but the kids were pretty excited.

We then set off another slightly longer(0.5) trail called Valley View trail, which was supposed to end with a view of the Big Sur valley. But since the trail starting going higher and the kids were getting crankier, we turned back about 0.2 miles into the trail. We had coffee and ice-cream at the lodge near the park entrance before heading back.

Definitely a nice place to spend the day...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sivaji - First Day, First Show

To no one’s surprise, Sivaji will be screened at the same 2 theaters in the Bay Area this weekend also. Rajni may be the BOSS(Box Office Super Star) onscreen but since there is another BOSS(Balaji’s Own Strict Spouse) at home, it seems unlikely that I will be able (read allowed!) to see it again this weekend. So I decided to simply relive the experience of watching the 8pm preview show, which was the first screening in the Bay Area, last Thursday.

We’ve long crossed the state where a Rajnikanth movie is just another movie and its release, just another release. With the actor cutting down drastically on his films and his box-office power and aura increasing with each film, his movie releases have become mega-events, each bigger than the one before. Proof of that was seen at the show last week. I have caught the first day shows of Padaiyappa, Baba and Chandramukhi here in the Bay Area and the Sivaji preview was easily the biggest of ‘em all.

I don’t think I have seen the FDFS of a Rajni movie back home in Chennai. Not knowing any theater managers and not counting any Rajni rasigar manram members among my friends, I was forced to stand in line at the ticket counters the first weekend after advance booking opened. With tickets for the first couple of days being blocked en masse by the fan clubs, I would usually get tickets for only the 3rd day or later. The crowds and the celebrations and the torn lottery tickets were all there but I always longingly imagined the scenes inside the theater on the first day.

The FDFS dream came true once I moved to the Bay Area. Knowing the distributor helped me get tickets easily for our full group for Padaiyappa while tickets for Baba and Chandramukhi were sold online and by keeping constant vigil on the website, I was able to snap them up as soon they were announced. Getting tickets for Sivaji turned out to be more complicated. Registration for the tickets was announced a long time back but in a case of procrastination never before seen when it came to Rajni movies, I let it pass by and did not register until I received the 4th email. I was heartbroken when I got an email from them saying that the 8pm show was sold out and that I was in line only for tickets for the 11.15pm show. But salvation came in the form of my wife’s cousin, who had registered for 2 tickets early enough to be get those tickets for the 8pm show and offered me one of them. With the cousin offering me the 2nd ticket and the home BOSS generously agreeing to me going to the show, I was all set (considering the earlier sadness and subsequent turnaround, all I could think was Aandavan nallavangalai sodhippaan, aanaa kai vida maattaan :-).

We arrived at the theater around 7.45pm and the place was already milling with Rajni fans (in a great idea, the distributors assigned row numbers for the tickets. So there were no lines and no mad rush when the doors opened later). Quite a few fans were wearing BOSS t-shirts and a few had on blonde wigs. A roar went around as one fan brought in a Sivaji poster and a short aarthi was performed in front of it, complete with agarbathis and coconuts. Since this was done in a courtyard with a Starbucks and a gym around, there were quite a few curious American onlookers for the activities, as you can imagine. It was almost 9 by the time the movie started but nobody really cared. Chants of thalaivaa or Sivaji went up at regular intervals as the long line snaked through the lobby and up the stairs to the theater door.

Adding to the festive feeling was the number of familiar faces I ran into. I met an old roommate and his friends, a friend who I hadn’t seen in more than 5 years and Shwetha, a regular reader/commenter here, was also nice enough to stop by and say “Hi”.

Mysore paakkus were distributed to viewers as they entered the theater and the atmosphere was electric as we settled in our seats. The Sultan(that's the animation film starring Rajni, directed by Soundarya Rajnikanth) trailer served as an appetizer to the main course and seeing Rajni’s face in graphics was awesome. Loud cheers and cries drowned out everything else as the censor certificate was shown, before stars lined up on screen for Rajni’s name(both the graphics and the background music have been changed from the earlier style that started with Annamalai). Thalaivar’s first appearance was ofcourse treated with thunderous applause as was the Ballelakka… song soon after.

Even in Rajni’s previous films, the noise usually ebbed after the first 10 minutes or so and popped up only occasionally after that during specific styles or punchlines. But the cheers lasted right to the end in Sivaji and I think that by itself is solid testimony to the way Shankar has presented Rajni. Off the top of my head, some specific moments that got the loudest cheers – Vivek’s comment about other actors doing the finger swish and uttering punchlines, the teakadai scene, the glass flip in the Style… song, the Panninga dhaandaa… line, the bullet backtrack in the Adhiradee… song and mottai boss’ arrival.

As we came out of the theater completely hoarse but thoroughly elated, the one thought in everyone’s mind undoubtedly was RAJNI RULES!!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sivaji - Full Review

Sivaji delivers exactly what one expects from a combination of Rajnikanth and Shankar - a larger-than-life Rajnikanth improving society in a simplistic but dramatic manner while romancing Shreya, goofing around with Vivek and participating in rich, elaborate song sequences and graphics-filled fights. It is weak on logic but Rajnikanth's style, charisma and screen presence have been exploited to the fullest extent to make that easier to overlook.

Shankar's record at the box-office proves that he knows the pulse of the viewer well. Sivaji seems designed to prove that he knows the pulse of the Rajni fan just as well. An all-out, unapologetic tribute to Rajni's star power and solely intended to showcase his ability to carry a movie single-handedly, the film is the work of a director who fully understood Rajni's image and set out to depict it in the grandest way possible. In that, he has succeeded. For Rajni(and Rajni fans!), Sivaji is gonna be a tough act to follow.

Sivaji(Rajnikanth), a sofware engineer in the US, has returned home for good and is determined to do good for the people. He decides to open universities to provide free education and hospitals to provide free medical services but finds the process rooted in corruption every step of the way. Setting aside his own misgivings, he bribes the concerned people and finally gets the permission to set up his foundation. But problems arise in the form of Adiseshan(Suman), a powerful businessman who sees the foundation as competition to his own empire. Meanwhile, Sivaji falls for Tamilselvi(Shriya), a pious, timid girl but she and her family don't warm up to Sivaji and his family so easily.

The film is unabashedly aimed at Rajni fans. The one liners, the slo-mo shots, the multiple hair styles, costumes and get-ups(including dressing up like MGR, Sivaji and Kamalhassan) and the references to past movies(note the professions Suman asks Rajni to consider when he is down on his luck) are all designed to elicit cheers and whistles from the actor's huge fan base. And Rajni rises to the occasion, carrying it all off with elan. Looking young and dashing in some fantastic costumes, he plays to the gallery as only he can. The actor and comedian in him peeks out in the first half (he has some funny lines and he is very convincing when he is frustrated about the roadblocks to his plans) but it is all style in the second half. Starting off with the fantastic teakadai confrontation with Suman, it is a one-man show all the way. Armed with new gimmicks like the coin toss and the bubble-gum pop, he reminds us once again why is the real original as he takes on Suman and his cohorts.

For his part, Shankar picks his favorite 'social vigilante' theme but the whole thing seems very watered down here. The first half describes the problem(corruption) while the second half suggests a way out of it(use the black money hoarded by the rich to fight it). It is a topical issue sure but is handled in a superficial way that prevents it from making an impact. Sujatha helps lay out the issue in a short and crisp manner but the sequences where the plan is put into action are mostly outlandish. Creating sequences allowing Rajni to be bombastic and larger-than-life has obviously been Shankar's only consideration and so logic and realism take a big hit.

The movie doesn't start off strong. Rajni's introduction scene is pretty weak(inspite of a strong build-up). Ballekakka... kicks off rather abruptly and the song sequence itself, inspite of the grandeur and a slim and great-looking Nayantara, is disappointing (btw, was that Shankar talking on the cellphone during the koovum cellphonin... line?). The technique of painted surroundings is a Shankar trademark by now and so fails to wow us and the fast steps for the song are a bit too much for Rajni to handle.

Inspite of the fabulous make-up that makes Rajni look almost half his age most of the time, we know that Shreya is way younger than him and any lovey-dovey sequences between them would have been quite uncomfortable. But Shankar cleverly sidesteps this by making the entire romance a comedy and that makes it easier to accept. Rajni's family wooing her family is different from the usual boy-girl routine and the entire sequence where they visit Shriya's house is hilarious. The comedy is definitely loud, juvenile and slapstick but it works. Vivek has some fantastic lines and Pattimanram Raja is an inspired pick for the role of the harassed, exasperated father. The segment where Rajni turns fair is also very funny(and clever since Shankar brings it in without making Shriya seem superficial) and the comic undertone makes the Style... song sequence work a lot better than the photos suggested. The location is great and Rajni has some great steps and moves(who else can make a simple move like taking off coolers to reveal plain glasses underneath, so stylish?!).

One of the big reasons for Chandramukhi's success was the flashback sequence that allowed Rajni to appear in a different get-up as Vettaiyan Raja. Shankar has learned well from that and tweaks the screenplay to allow the same kind of surprise here too. Rajni's look in the last segment is exhilarating and a good surprise (Oh, how I wish those pictures hadn't been leaked!). He gets to introduce a new style, utter some crowd-pleasing punchlines and participate in a stylish, good-looking fight sequence.

Shriya looks suitably mellow as Rajni's love interest. She looks gorgeous in the song sequences and is probably the only Tamil heroine among the current crop who deserves the description 'hot'! Considering the clean nature of the rest of the film, she could have been clothed a little more in the songs though. Suman plays a suave, sheep-in-wolf's-clothing kind of villain. He does a good job but his character is obviously very ineffectual and that affects our impression of him. Vivek has almost as much screen time as Rajni if you disregard the song sequences and has some hilarious lines.

Athiradee... should count as one of the best Rajni song sequences of all time. Lavishly mounted in a great setting with great ideas, bright costumes, superb choreography, it is one of the high points of the movie. Vaaji Vaaji... and Sahana... are more noticeable for their grand sets. As far as fight sequences go, Shankar spoils them by being too ambitious. The music store fight is nicely done but the comedy hurts its effectiveness. The car chase at the drive-in is plain ridiculous with SUVs flying off in all directions as they are swatted by Rajni's vehicle. But it does end on a nice note though. The climactic fight is saved by style with the billowing coat on Rajni adding to the atmosphere. The small fight at Suman's godown and the fight inside the rundown building end up being the best of the lost since they are more realistic and down-to-earth.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Sivaji delivers exactly what one expects from a combination of Rajnikanth and Shankar - a larger-than-life Rajnikanth improving society in a simplistic but dramatic manner while romancing Shreya, goofing around with Vivek and participating in rich, elaborate song sequences and graphics-filled fights. It is weak on logic but Rajnikanth's style, charisma and screen presence have been exploited to the fullest extent to make that easier to overlook.

[Full review available above]

Thursday, June 14, 2007


The day is finally here. As I write this, the BOSS must've already arrived in Chennai, Singapore, Malaysia and a few other countries lucky enough to be in the right places on the globe and he will be gracing US screens just a few hours from now. The excitement has reached dizzying heights and its really tough to focus on work here. To add to the excitement, Rediff has published a new set of stills and the first still and the photo where Rajni is in the metal ring in the stunt sequence are mind-blowing. With the release so close, I know that now's not the time for a rant but I really need to get this off my chest.

I've seen posts and comments about the high prices for Sivaji tickets in the US. Tickets for Tamil movies in the Bay Area have never crossed $10 before but tickets for Sivaji are priced at $20 for the preview shows and $16 for regular shows. I think some locations(like New Jersey) have charged $25 for preview shows. People are complaining about this, blaming everyone from Rajni to AVM to the US distributors and I've seen atleast 1 blogger calling for a boycott claiming that the high price is a reason for piracy!

The complaints are coming from the same people who shelled out money for Rahman's concert, paid big bucks for watching the recent World Cup on DISH network, etc. Can't you listen to the same Rahman songs on your CD player? Can't you watch the matches online or on DVD a few weeks later? Are Rahman or our cricket players not getting a cent of the money you willingly paid? You paid because you felt it was worth it. So why is paying more for Sivaji tickets any different?

At the risk of repeating myself I have to say this... Cinema is purely simple business for those in it. Everyone in it is out to make money. In this case, Shankar's penchant for spending money is well-known. That + Rajni's renumeration makes this an expensive film and AVM will obviously want to get back their money(and more). In recent times the foreign market has become real lucrative and so they sold the movie for a high price to the distributors.

As for the distributors here, the situation in foreign markets is quite a bit different that what it is back home. They can't get as many theaters here(unlike back home where u have a huge number of theaters and virtually no competition) and can't hope for a very long run(whether we like it or not, movies are available online real soon and technology makes downloading them a breeze). So they have to make money as soon as possible. The stakes in this case are also higher since they've obviously paid a huge amount and are at a huge risk if the film turns out to be a flop. If word of mouth gets out that its a bad movie, audience after the first couple of days will dwindle rapidly. So as many shows as possible and as high ticket rates as possible the first few days is just basic business sense.

Whether we pay or not is entirely upto us. Thats gonna depend simply on whether we think the movie's gonna offer enough entertainment for the money we pay. Its just a question of whether we will get our money's worth. If you don't feel that the pure electric excitement of watching Sivaji in the first few days with like-minded Rajni fans is worth $16 or $20 or whatever, you don't buy tickets. Its as simple as that. Please don't make a big hue and cry about it!

Whew! Now that that's out of the way, I'm all set to welcome the BOSS...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Coming Soon - Sivaji

It shouldn't come as any surprise that this is a 'Coming Soon' post I've been waiting to write for the last 2 years. I've been counting the days ever since the movie was announced and after the long wait and false starts, it is now certain that the BOSS will arrive June 15 (June 14 if you are in the US!). To be honest, there's not much more I can write about the movie that hasn't been written earlier, either on this blog or elsewhere. So everything in this post will probably sound repetitive but that's not gonna stop me :-)

Everything about Sivaji is big. Pick any aspect of the movie at random and chances are that you will have a superlative associated with it. For starters, the movie stars Rajnikanth, Tamil cinema's biggest star. Shrugging off the Baba debacle, he has just delivered Tamil cinema's biggest hit ever in Chandramukhi and his stock is at an all-time high. His renumeration for Sivaji is rumoured to have made him the highest-paid actor in India and the second-highest paid actor in Asia after only Jackie Chan. Its been more than 2 years since Chandramukhi reached theaters and so his arrival is eagerly anticipated.

With only a movie every two years, it is a given that any Rajni movie is big. But what makes this one bigger than all his recent movies is the fact that he is teaming up with Shankar, arguably Tamil cinema's most successful director(atleast commercially) right now. Like Rajni, he recovered nicely from the critical and commercial flop Boys to deliver one of the biggest hits of his career in Anniyan. For some time now, Rajni has been working with middle-rung directors who had no individuality or special touch and so, could easily adapt to making a movie that fit Rajni's larger-than-life image. For the first time since Thalapathi, he has joined hands with a director who has made a name for himself and has developed his own style and so expectations are naturally sky-high.

Joining the two is A.R.Rahman, easily India's most popular music director. Shankar is one of the directors for whom Rahman has consistently delivered some of his best work and he has risen to the challenge once again, delivering an eclectic soundtrack that did the tough job of satisfying Rajni fans as well as Rahman fans. As expected, the album is a huge hit and primed the expectations for the film.

Shankar's films are expensive and so a producer with deep pockets is necessary to ensure that the film doesn't run into any issues. He had no such worries this time around with AVM as the production company. AVM has had a long and mutually beneficial association with Rajnikanth with hits like Murattu Kaalai, Pokkiri Raja and Nallavanukku Nallavan filling their coffers as well as helping Rajni in his ascent to the position of box-office king. He is back with the respected production company after a long gap and the movie has had a smooth flow without any of the hiccups that other big movies like Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu had.

A team like the above will make sure that they work only with the best talent around and a look at the rest of Sivaji's crew confirms that. Dialogs are by Sujatha, who has delivered some memorable dialogs for Shankar's previous films. Cinematography is by National award winner K.V.Anand and set design is by Thotta Tharani. Peter Hein is responsible for the stunts, a crucial part of Shankar's masala films and editing is by Anthony, who has done a terrific job in putting together the trailer.

Shreya is Rajni's heroine in the film. She was incredibly lucky to get the role inspite of having had a not-too-spectacular debut in Mazhai and if her upcoming films are any indication, she seems poised to reap the windfall from this incredible stroke of luck. Vivek, who was hilarious in Anniyan, is once again playing the comedian. Suman, who has acted in a few Tamil films long ago but had a much more successful career in Telugu after that, is the bad guy. Manivannan and Vadivukkarasi are apparently playing Rajni's parents while Raja, who is a regular on the pattimandrams telecast on festival days, is acting as Shreya's father.

With only 2 more days to go, the long, agonizing wait is finally coming to an end. Now its upto Rajni and Shankar to ensure that the year's biggest movie also ends up being its most entertaining...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Karuppusamy Kuthagaikkaarar

Romance is definitely the most used subject in Tamil cinema but Karuppusamy Kuthagaikkaarar proves that it can still be dealt with and presented in a fresh manner. The film's story isn't anything new and revolves around a romance that is opposed by the girl's parents. But by throwing a few other positive, feel-good ideas into the mix, director Moorthy manages to extract an engrossing, entertaining film from the familiar story.

Karuppusamy(Karan) works as a cycle stand contractor during the day and at night, is part of a troupe that does mimicry. Rasathi(Meenakshi), who has lost her mother, sees the same kind of love and affection in Karuppusamy and falls for him. Karuppusamy sees that Rasathi needs him to continue her studies and accepts her romance but Rasathi's father isn't too happy when he finds out.

The romance between Karan and Meenakshi has an underlying sweetness that makes it easy to accept. We've been used to entire romances being built based on the hero and heroine just laying eyes on each other(or sometimes even less!) and so the romance here, which arises out of Meenakshi's yearning for love, is a pleasant surprise. The way Meenakshi sees Karan as a substitute for something she misses in life and the way Karan understands and accepts that are portrayed very well. This solid foundation paves the way for a tender but convincing romance.

KK is probably one of the most well-intentioned romances I remember seeing. Lovers always face a lot of opposition to their romance and have to fight several battles but the fights are usually fought for their love to succeed. The main goal for the lovers is that the two of them live happily ever after. But the couple here has a much loftier goal. Meenakshi wants to continue her education while Karan wants to stand by her side and make sure that she does. So they earn our respect and admiration and it becomes easy for us to root for them.

The movie has a nice script. While the hardcore Madurai dialect is able to make even ordinary dialogs sound humorous, there are a number of clever, throwaway lines that take jabs at topical issues like reservation and the tendency of our heroes to pick up the aruvaal. But the director nnecessarily resorts to a separate comedy track with Vadivelu and that turns out to be a big mistake. Continuing the trend in recent movies, the track equates violence and physical pain with laughter as Vadivelu, a conman, lands himself in a variety of situations that result in him shedding blood. The hits he takes are of the serious, painful variety and not just simple slaps or pratfalls either and do not raise any laughs. The mimicry routines of the group Karan is part of, manage to be funnier. But they overstay their welcome and as they go on and on, end up looking more like a product placement rather than an integral part of the movie.

The tone of the climax doesn't exactly fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie(barring maybe Meenakshi's flashback). But the plot device used to bring it in and the skill with which it is picturized help us overlook that. It is fiery and energetic with the Karuppan Varaan... number in the background and helps close the movie on a real high.

Karan has really slimmed down and that makes it easy for us to accept him as a hero. He is extremely comfortable with the dialect and is able to effectively convey underplayed humor with it. Easily one of his better performances. Meenakshi reminds us of many other actresses in different angles. She is not traditionally beautiful or pretty but her character goes a long way in making us like her. It is a surprisingly good soundtrack from Dhina. Uppu Kallu... is quite melodious though it sounds vaguely familiar. Naalu Gopura... is sung with a lot of enthusiasm by Tippu and Chinnaponnu. Sangam Vaithu... is a nice mix of melodious and fun.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ocean's 13

Neither Ocean's 11 nor Ocean's 12 can be considered real heist movies(like Rififi or even Heist). They were simply excuses to get some big stars together and let them be cool and have fun while trading quips. The actual heists were almost afterthoughts. Ocean's 13 continues this tradition. While the lack of freshness in seeing the stars together prevents it from being as much fun as Ocean's 11, it is definitely a big step up from Ocean's 12.

This time around, the gang's goal is revenge. When ruthless Willy Bank(Al Pacino) dupes Reuben out of the partnership in his new Las Vegas casino, Reuben has a heart attack. So Ocean(George Clooney), Rusty(Brad Pitt), Linus(Matt Damon) and the rest of the group plan to make Bank lose a lot of money the night he opens his casino. Financial constraints force them to turn to Terry(Andy Garcia) for help and he agrees, but for a big fee.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Ocean's 12(and to a much lesser extent, Ocean's 11 too) was that the planning the team did for the major part of the movie was essentially just to set up a red herring. The elaborate plan that was put in motion eventually turned out to be a distraction while the main theft involved something as simple - and as disappointing - as switching backpacks in a train. But there are no such misdirections in Ocean's 13. All the planning is really in service of the big heist and that results in a sense of satisfaction as we see the plan go into action.

The things the gang puts in place for the eventual heist to work are preposterous and implausible, many of the things(like finding insiders in Pacino's casino) happen too conveniently and there is no suspense during any part of the actual heist. But the movie is light-hearted and fun. The stars, especially the big 3, have a lot of screen presence and charisma and carry the movie along effortlessly, usually with just their smiles and expressions. Many of the one-liners and situations are funny and keep us smiling. The heist being good is just icing on the cake.

But after the over-the-top setup, the actual heist itself isn't anticlimactic and is a delight. Since the target is a bad guy who we've come to hate rather than some faceless millionaire, the payoff is immensely satisfying. There is also the usual elation as we see the pieces of the plan fall into place. Like in other movies in this genre, we've been given only peeks at the plan during the preparation stage and it is fun watching things come together as the plan is put into motion.

The movie has too many stars for any one of them to make an impression and they all coast along on their familiarity and reputations. Clooney and Pitt as usual get the most screen time and their short, snappy conversations are quite funny. Damon gets the most laughs with his usual routine of "I want to be taken more seriously". Pacino is his usual self but Ellen Barkin seems a little too old for her role.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chicago-St.Louis Trip

Had a packed but fun Memorial Day weekend, visiting the Midwest. I did my Masters in the Midwest(a kugraamam called Rolla in Missouri) but haven't been back there since moving to California after getting my degree. While I didn't make it to Rolla in this trip, it was nice visiting the area.

We had booked an intermediate size car but since the rental place was out of cars we were 'upgraded' to a minivan at the same price. The weather forecast had talked about scattered thunderstorms in both Chicago and St.Louis when I checked the day before we left but the weather turned out to be sunny and absolutely gorgeous on all 4 days. All our flights were on time and the kids didn't fall sick. Small things but they did their part bit in making it a great trip.

We flew in to Chicago Saturday night and stayed in a city called Schaumburg, about half hour away from Chicago. Sunday morning we visited Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. It is the hub for quite a few activities and we spent about half a day there, walking along the lakeshore, riding the Ferris Wheel and visiting the Children's Museum. The last mentioned was obviously the favorite stop for Kavya and Karthik. Though we've visited similar museums in San Jose and Portland, this museum had a few new sections and attractions and made for a fun couple of hours(for them and us). We then went to Chicago's most famous attraction, Sears Tower. The long wait(almost 2 hours) to get to the skydeck was a pain and quite frustrating but the views from the top(though only a few minutes) made us forget the preceding wait. Lake Michigan and the dense collection of skyscrapers made for some awesome views. From there we drove around downtown Chicago for a while and visited Buckingham fountain. In the middle of a park and right alongside the lakeshore with the boats docked, it was a peaceful, relaxing setting that made us forget that we were right in the heart of downtown.

The next morning we went for a river cruise on Chicago river. With Chicago being famed for its skyscrapers, this was the best way to see all of them(and learn some interesting tidbits about their architecture too). Then we went to the Field Museum, which we wanted to visit for 2 main reasons - one, Kavya wanted to see 'Sue', a dinosaur she had learned about in school and two, my wife, who is a big fan of the film The Ghost and the Darkness, wanted to see the 2 man-eating lions of Tsavo, on whom the movie is based. Eventually the museum turned out to be the best part of the trip and the 3 hours we spent in there were definitely not enough. The underground section, the Egyptian section with its coffins and mummies and the African section with the realistic, stuffed animals were fabulous.

We drove to St.Louis that evening and had dinner at an Indian restaurant Flavor of India. The food and the customer service here were excellent, especially compared to the Indian restaurant we went to in Schaumburg. Highly recommended! The next morning we visited the St.Louis Arch, our only stop in St.Louis. An architectural marvel, it is almost impossible to believe, when looking up at the towering structure from below, that we would travel inside it to the very top. But thats exactly what we did for some great views of the city(and beyond). We also took the riverboat cruise on Mississippi river but barring some good views of the Arch, it offered nothing else and wasn't worth it.

After lunch in the park around the arch, we drove to Franklin in Wisconsin and spent the night at my wife's cousin's place. Headed back to the airport the next morning and flew back home. Looking back, a good ride, great weather, excellent hotels, well-behaved kids and a lot of attractions that were fun for everybody made this a great trip.

Photos from the trip can be seen here

PS: Karthik turns 2 today :-)

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Young and the Stylish

When compared to his attitude regarding the pre-release publicity for his previous films, Shankar seems to be in a much more generous mood for Sivaji. After the initial lack of information, official photos from the film have been coming out at regular intervals and the trailer too revealed quite a bit about the movie. Not that I'm complaining! Though we are almost at the end of the long 2-year wait, the remaining wait of 11 days still seems interminably long and these tidbits will help make the wait less painful.

The most-emailed photos today would probably have been those 3 photos of a bald Rajni dressed in black. While it was undeniably exciting to see Rajni's very different look, the photos themselves didn't look exactly official. I received a different set of photos from fellow Rajni fan Anantha and the above 2 photos are my favorites from among them. So I thought I'd post them instead. He looks really young in the one on the left and really reminds us of Rajni from the 80s. And the photo on the right is probably my most favorite photo so far. He looks really cool and dashing.

Vaaji Vaaji Vaaji...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Yaar Ivalo...

I was pretty sure that if there was a 'Make-up man of the Year' award, the man who made Rajni look so young and dashing in Sivaji would win it easily. But looks like he now has some competition! If I hadn't read the accompanying text, I definitely wouldn't have recognized the gorgeous gal in the photos above as the rather plain-looking actress I've seen in 2 movies, both of which I liked.

Those readers haven't seen the original website with these photos... any guesses as to who she is?