Monday, September 29, 2008


What Dhaam Dhoom tried to do, Alibaba does but with a lot more success. It has the same basic theme of an innocent man being framed and trying to clear his name but wrapped around it is a screenplay that is smart, well-paced and most of all, consistently surprising. With a new cast and director, Alibaba arrived in theaters unheralded, especially compared to another thriller, Venkat Prabhu's Saroja. But inspite of the weaker technical aspects and a less accomplished cast, it ends up as the better thriller between the two on the strength of its story and screenplay.

Velu(Krishna) is a petty thief and a key member of a small, closely-knit gang. A couple of misunderstandings make a bank employee Janani(Janani) think Velu is a do-gooder and she falls for him and her attitude makes Velu rethink his profession too. Meanwhile, young girls are being murdered in the city and the case is being handled by the Commissioner(Biju Menon).

The movie's biggest asset is the element of surprise. The director is able to consistently lull us into expecting something familiar and then surprise us by pulling an unexpected plot development out of his hat. This happens right from the first scene, which starts off in familiar fashion with Prakashraj berating his irresponsible son and his friend but then reveals something totally unexpected. And things only get better from there with the plot point that gets Krishna into big trouble being a whopper of a surprise. Red herrings, when employed, are used judiciously so that they actually work and mislead us. The director is able to keep up this combination of misdirection and surprise right upto the end and so even the most jaded cinema viewer is likely to be surprised atleast a couple of times during the movie.

The director hasn't thrown logic out the window in his quest to surprise us. He keeps a tight rein on the screenplay and develops things logically. Almost every scene(like the one where Velu breaks into a house without knowing that it's Janani's friend's house) and character(like the bank manager) has its place in the proceedings and its especially nice when something brought up in a different context(like the concept of the 'third man' or the 'fall guy') ends up gaining importance in a completely unexpected way. The technique where a particular scene leads us to infer something before other happenings shed a completely different light on it, is used here too to good effect. There are a few holes in logic and a couple of unexplained loose ends(it isn't clear how Janani finds the villain based on an old photograph) but there are covered up for the most part by the fast-paced screenplay.

A good thriller usually contains an interesting protagonist, a suspenseful story with some well-timed surprises and a fast-paced screenplay. Alibaba scores on all three points. Unfortunately, it also has the usual Tamil cinema staples like unwanted heroism(complete with an introduction song), an item number and unrealistic stunt sequences. But since these are only momentary interruptions(compared to, say, a comedy track that pops up at regular intervals), they only end up being minor irritants rather than show-stoppers or big speed-breakers.

Krishna, director Vishnuvardhan's younger brother, reminds us of S.J.Suryah in some places but we can't hold that against him. He has a dour expression most of the time but dances and fights well. Janani doesn't stand out. Prakashraj is solid as usual while Biju Menon is more impressive than usual since he doesn't attempt to play the standard bad guy. Thilakan and Radharavi play familiar characters. Neenda Mounam... is a nice melody in usual Vidyasagar style while Harey Harey Sambo... benefits from the different picturization (even if the situation reminds one of a similar situation in Subramanyapuram).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Over the Labor Day weekend, we drove down to the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, two National Parks that are administered as one.

The Trees
If you love trees, the parks will be a dream come true since the highlights of the parks are the giant sequoia trees. I'm not particularly enamored of trees but the sight of the trees rising majestically into the sky was definitely awe-inspiring. Everything else around the trees was dwarfed by them and the sheer size, height and bulk of the trees, many of which were thousands of years old, made us feel rather puny. There were several trails that allowed us to walk among groves of sequoias and these made for relaxing, cool hikes. Ofcourse, the park service had done some things to make things a bit more interesting. One was the Tunnel Log, a tree that fell across the road and had been cut into to make an artificial tunnel for cars to drive under. Another was the Auto Log, a massive fallen tree that was so wide that it actually served as a roadway in the past.

Other Sights
Water-based sights(waterfalls, lakes, streams, etc.) definitely come much higher on my list of favorite sights than trees. So went looking for those at these National parks too. While Day 1 was water-free, we drove to Hume Lake on Day 2. It was a pretty, picturesque lake and we had lunch by the lakeside (many other people had the same idea and so it was pretty crowded though). We also drove to 2 waterfalls - Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls. The former was tall but not very impressive but the latter was a pretty little waterfall with the water falling into a waterhole. As always, we clambered onto the rocks around the waterfall and later, the creek, leading from it and that was fun. We also made the climb(a lot of stairs!) to the top of Morro Rock for some spectacular panoramic views of the canyon.

The Wildlife
It doesn't matter how many zoos or wild animal parks we've seen. Its always exciting to spot animals in the wild without cages or fences to separate them from us. While driving in Sequoia National Park, we spotted a couple of bears in the meadow not too far from the road. People simply stopped their cars on the road and rushed out to take a look. Park officials came by soon to clear the area so it was real good timing for us. The next day, while driving down to Hume Lake, we saw a deer grazing peacefully by the roadside. Not really 'wild' life but still pretty neat though.

Some photos from the trip can be seen here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One Hit Wonders

Kaadhalil Vizhundhen is releasing this weekend here in the Bay Area and the email announcing the release had as its subject "Coming - 2008's biggest song Naaku Muka". I'm not sure I've ever seen films - even those with music by Ilaiyaraja or A.R.Rahman - being advertised with the name of one of their songs! And I'm pretty sure that the song is the reason that the film, which has unfamiliar faces in the lead, is even releasing on the big screen here.

Hindi cinema had always had these blockbuster songs - numbers like Ek Do Teen..., Oye Oye... or Chumma Chumma De De... - that became immensely popular, driving up album sales and contributing significantly to the movie's success. But I never thought Tamil cinema had such numbers. We had great soundtracks ofcourse and some songs became popular than the others but more than 1 song in such soundtracks were usually good. People picked different songs as their favorite and there wasn't 1 particular song that caught the fancy of everybody and became a frenzy.

As far as I can remember, the first song that could be called a true blockbuster was Oh Podu... from Gemini. It was a rage from the moment the soundtrack was released and I remember even posters had the song's name displayed prominently. More recently Vaazha Meenukkum... from Chithiram Pesudhadi would fall under the blockbuster category too. It singlehandedly drove the movie from obscurity to box-office success and made 'Gana' Ulaganathan an instantly recognizable name. Can't remember any more.

While I've seen Naaku Muka... being mentioned in other news items, it was today's email that prompted me to search out the song and listen to it. Though it seemed more like a rhyme than a song, I gotta admit that it was pretty catchy with the fast tune and the light-hearted lyrics.While I haven't heard the other songs from the film, Naaku Muku..., from all the publicity and hype, seems to have eclipsed the other numbers to become the next Oh Podu... or Vaazha Meenukkum.... Wonder if it'll help the movie itself become as big a hit as the movies carrying those 2 songs.

While on Kaadhalil Vizhundhen, here's Nakul, the hero of the film.

Quite a transformation from the chubby boy in Boys.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


After making us sit up and take notice with the original and fun Chennai 600028 , director Venkat Prabhu changes tracks to serve up a thriller with Saroja. The good news is that he has sidestepped the dreaded sophomore jinx successfully. Visually attractive and refreshingly down-to-earth, Saroja is a solid, engaging thriller that manages to be both believable and exciting - not an easy combination to achieve. Wish it had offered a few more thrills though.

Jagapathi Babu(S.P.Charan), his brother Ram Babu(Vaibhav), Ganesh(Premji) and their newly-engaged friend Ajay(Shiva) are driving to Hyderabad to watch a cricket match between India and Pakistan. Caught in a traffic jam as the result of an accident, they decide to take a detour. The same day, Saroja(Vega), the daughter of a rich businessman(Prakashraj) is kidnapped and held for ransom and the four friends become unwittingly caught up in the kidnap drama.

A prerequisite for a good thriller is a protagonist who is a common man - one of us, so to say - caught in situations beyond his control. That's how he earns our sympathy and gets us to root for him to escape unscathed, paving the way for us to get involved in the film. The number of protagonists may vary but the rules remain the same and Venkat Prabhu has understood this well. In a day when our heroes are portrayed as superheroes, Saroja's 4 protagonists are refreshingly down-to-earth. Their initial camaraderie is pleasant and unforced and when they get into trouble, their thoughts and actions are credible. This realism and credibility take a small hit when they make silly jokes while running for their lives but for the most part, this is what keeps the movie going.

Saroja has a pretty simple story but Venkat enhances it with a screenplay that makes it seem like it is more than what it is. Like the focus on the truck - and its ominous skull-and-crossbones logo - that kicks off the movie. The truck is simply the obstacle that drives the foursome to take the detour and simply showing an accident - any accident - would've worked just as well. But by focusing on the truck, Venkat draws us in right away, making us think about what's coming. Same with the parallel story tracks and those timestamps that show us the timelines of the different tracks. They make us think about fate and coincidence, getting us more involved that would've been the case if the same story had been presented in a straightforward narration. These are gimmicks no doubt but they make the movie interesting and that's what matters at the end.

The film sets things up almost perfectly. It presents characters that we care for, puts them in harm's way in a believable manner and then raises the stakes(first they are worried about losing the way but then they are worried about losing their lives!) slowly but steadily. Though we know how the two tracks are going to be linked, there is some suspense about some of the happenings.

But a screenplay can only take you so far and that becomes clear once the story has unspooled. As the friends go on the run, the movie begins to spin its wheels and the story barely moves forward. And with the action limited to one location, there's not much variety in the chase itself either. Venkat Prabhu does extract a lot out of the setting as the friends evade the people chasing them with a combination of smarts and luck but the proceedings do make us wish that something different would happen. Another factor that contributes to this feeling of the movie being stuck during these portions is the fact that there are no surprises whatsoever. The plot proceeds in a straightforward manner with none of those twists or surprises that we expect from a thriller. This is somewhat made up for towards the end but some twists and turns would have provided the adrenaline shot that the movie is in need of.

As in Chennai 600028, Venkat is able to extract good performances from his entire cast. Vaibhav catches the eye as the more impatient and short-tempered member of the group. S.P.Charan and Shiva are adequate. Premji's body language and dialog delivery already seem repetitive. He does earn a few laughs initially but many of his jokes later fall flat because of being ill-timed. Prakashraj and Jayaram are solid as always. Chennai 600028's main cast members show up in some interesting cameos too. Yuvan Shankar Raja disappoints with a rather weak soundtrack but Venkat's visual touches, whether the rock concert-like atmosphere in Cheeky Cheeky..., the cameos by numerous TV serial artistes in Maappillaikku Nichayadhaartham... or the fast edits and quick cuts in Dosth Bada Dosth..., make the song sequences watchable. Nimirndhu Nil... is the best number and is picturized in a suitably invigorating manner.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Endhiran - First Glimpse

[Pic Courtesy -]

An unofficial photo snapped during the song sequence that was recently shot for Endhiran. Thalaivar get-up chumma adhirudhilla!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Kinda Contest!

Netflix is going to host a Movie Watching World Championship at Times Square in New York. The competition will run from October 2nd to 7th as the contestants attempt to set a new world record for most number of consecutive hours spent watching movies. The movies will be screened in a specially-erected plexi-glass living room, allowing passers-by to watch the contestants and the winner will get $10,000, a lifetime subscription to Netflix and the first-ever Popcorn Bowl Trophy.

The current world record of watching movies continuously for 120 hours and 23 minutes is held, not surprisingly considering our craze for movies, by an Indian - Ashish Sharma of Mathura. So 56 movies, totaling 121 hours, will be screened in the attempt to beat his record. There are 8 contestants, including Ashish though Netflix has said they will give others a chance to participate by inviting submission of video auditions through Facebook. The contestants have to watch the movies non-stop without averting their eyes from the screen and medical professionals will be on hand to ensure they are actually 'watching' the movie and not just staring at the screen. Eating, drinking, standing and stretching are allowed as long as their eyes remain on the screen and they will be given 10 minutes between movies(or every 2 hours) to refresh themselves. I couldn't find any information on what the 56 movies are though. Maybe the list is intended to be a surprise for the contestants. I'm curious about the criteria they're gonna use to come up with that list.

I think 2 movies is the most I've watched back-to-back in the theater. But I could probably watch 4 or even 5(depending on the movies ofcourse). But watching 56 movies in a row without even a nap would be quite an achievement. Have to wait and see who wins the Championship...

3 New Reviews

Reviews for Naayagan(2008), Jayam Kondaan and Dhaam Dhoom are now online @ bbreviews.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sanhiti's Cinema Cinema

I heard about Sanhiti and their annual shows last year from one of the blog's readers who was part of the troupe and the show. I couldn't make it to last year's show but managed to attend their show Cinema Cinema - Rhythm on Reels yesterday in Redwood City. The program was conducted in association with the Association for India Development(AID) and was a fundraiser for the Eureka Child project A skit interspersed with song and dance, it was a fun show that offered a different experience.

The program started off a bit slow. It started with a Bharatanatyam performance by 2 dancers and then a traditional Malayalam group dance. The costumes were colorful and the dancers were good but I was a little restless since this wasn't what I was expecting from a show called Cinema Cinema! The skit kicked off with a director Manimantar announcing a scripting contest for his next film but here too, the jokes - mostly about Manirathnam, starting off with the play of words on his name - fell flat. But once the dances started, the show found its groove. The dance sequences were all good and the skit, which split into two tracks following two teams as they developed stories for the contest, also got better with some clever and funny jokes.

The songs selected were a good mix of fast and slow; modern and folksy. All of them featured impressive props and lighting and were very well choreographed. The dancers were not all in perfect sync and some of then could've used a little more practice but overall, all the productions were quite professional. Though I'm not a big fan of kuthu numbers, I have found time and again that they end up being the most energetic and exciting in live dance shows. That was the case here too as Kumbida Pona Dheivam...(from Tiruppaachi) was rousingly staged with some spirited dancing by all the participants and ended up as the best number by far. Sei Edhaavadhu Sei... (Billa), the Engeyum Eppodhum... remix(Pollaadhavan) and October Kaatru...(Idhaya Thirudan), which was staged as a salsa dance, also caught the eye with their costumes and choreography.

The songs were definitely the highpoints of the show but the skit did its job of keeping us entertained between the numbers. There were some clever jokes(using a kiLi is 'kiLi'ched :) and the two tracks were brought together cleverly - even if predictably - at the end. There were a number of topical jokes about films and potshots at a lot of actors but these didn't work as well as the more general jokes though.

Overall, it was a fun and entertaining show and it was for a good cause. So, an evening well-spent...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dhaam Dhoom

The protagonist of many of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films was an innocent man who was wrongly accused and went on the run while trying to clear his name. Director Jeeva picks a similar protagonist for Dhaam Dhoom, his first foray into the action genre. Both the action and the romance portions of the film are handled competently, with some notable highpoints. But the result of putting them together isn't as satisfying and so the film seems like its less than the sum of its parts.

A noted cinematographer, Jeeva graduated to direction with the wonderful 12B, a refreshing film that handled the unique subject of parallel timelines. Jeeva guided the potentially confusing story with a confident, firm hand and made us sit up and take notice. His second film Ullam Ketkume was a long time coming as it ran into a host of problems but luck favored him when it released since 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 and though it was too talky and not very practical, it caught the fancy of the youth and became a hit. Dhaam Dhoom's action portions are proof that Jeeva was as adept at filming action as he was at handling romance and the director, who passed away due to a cardiac arrest as he was shooting Dhaam Dhoom will definitely be missed.

Gautham('Jayam' Ravi), a doctor, is one of only five doctors selected by the Government to attend a medical conference in Moscow, Russia. Gautham isn't too enthusiastic about traveling since his wedding with Shenba(Kangana Ranaut) is just a few days away but his family doesn't want him to miss the opportunity and sends him on his way. Gautham runs into a model Anna at the airport and then again at a nightclub a few days later. He brings her back to his hotel room since she is too drunk and passes out too. A rude shock awaits him in the morning as Anna is found dead and he is arrested by the police. As he is charged and sent to Jail, an officer(Jayaram) from the Indian embassy and Aparna(Lakshmi Rai), a lawyer, are the only two people on his side.

The film is primarily about Ravi's troubles in Russia and these segments are bookended by flashbacks that detail the progress of his romance with Kangana. This structure prevents the suspense from being ratcheted up to the level necessary to pull us in. Every time we become caught up in Ravi's situation, the film lightens things by harking back to his romance. The romance isn't bad. Kangana is an interesting character and her encounters with Ravi are sweet. But it lacks excitement(since Ravi and Kangana are getting married, we know how its gonna end!) and has no impact on Ravi's predicament in Russia. So the segments feel like speedbreakers to the film's flow.

Russia provides a fresh setting for the action and the lack of English makes even basic communication impossible. So it becomes easy to sympathize with Ravi. The proceedings aren't as polished(its funny when a conference attended by supposedly leading doctors kicks off with one of them talking about blood mismatch during a transplant) or realistic(our involvement with Ravi is greatly damaged when he walks around Moscow without any problem while on the run) as we'd like. But it helps that there are no unbelievable stunts or fight sequences. Fights are restricted to small scuffles and chases, two of which are spectacularly filmed and get the adrenaline flowing.

We know right at the beginning that Ravi is not going to be on the run the whole time and will swing into action to clear his name. So the fact that it happens is no surprise but the way things proceed after that is. Things plop into place too easily and the plot points used to clear things are simplistic and convenient.

'Jayam' Ravi, who has played loverboy roles so far, slips comfortably into the action role. Kangana feels a little out-of-place in the village setting and the role doesn't stretch her much either. Lakshmi Rai was obviously brought in to provide Ravi a jodi during his time in Russia. She does little lawyering and spends more time running around with him. Jayaram tones down the comedy but still doesn't look too comfortable in his role. Harris Jayaraj comes up with another blockbuster soundtrack for Jeeva, who films them with his usual visual flair. Pudhu Pudhu... looks like a fun and flashy music video and has some nice touches, like the passers-by who launch into those Ha Ha interludes. Thikku Thikku... catches the eye with the bright and flashy lights in the nightclub. Aazhiyile... is sensually picturized with the confines of a car while Anbe Ennanbe... takes place in some gorgeous locales.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

New Looks

Simbhu's movies have so far been targeted towards the B and C center audiences - the so-called mass rather than class audience. But his next film Poda-Podi, inspite of the name, is supposed to be a film with urban sensibilities that focuses on a young married couple's life. Simbhu's look here in the film's promo poster seems to reflect that tone with the spiked hair and the trendy dress. Gotta wait to see how well the role sits on him.

PS: His heroine in the film is supposed to be Varalakshmi, Sarathkumar's daughter. But I can't really tell if that's her.

'Jayam' Ravi has so far been comfortable playing lover boy and has found good success with boy-next-door type roles, the last such success being Santosh Subramaniam. He tried out playing an action hero in Dhaam Dhoom and looks like its success has given him confidence that he can carry it off successfully. He's going a step further and trying out the tough-guy look in Peraanmai, an action film where he's supposed to be playing a forest officer. He seems like an unlikely candidate for the action hero slot but you never know...

Jai has so far played down-to-earth, realistic roles in both Chennai 600028 and Subramanyapuram. Looks like he's getting the chance to play dress-up as a regular Tamil cinema hero in his next film Vaamanan. Replacing the beard with a stubble and trading in the 80s dresses for some designer clothing, he looks all set. We can only hope we haven't lost one more young hero to commercialism.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Endhiran Starts!

[Pic Courtesy -]

This poster announces the start of shooting for Endhiran, the next film from Rajni and Shankar. Endhiran, ofcourse, is the new name for what was so far being called Robot. The shoot is supposed to be starting with a song sequence, though the location of the shoot isn't clear with some news reports mentioning the US and others talking about Peru.

Let the hype begin!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

5 New Reviews

Reviews for Vallamai Thaaraayo, Uliyin Osai, Subramanyapuram, Kuselan and Sathyam are now online @ bbreviews.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Prisoner of Birth

From Jeffrey Archer's last few novels, I've been getting the impression that he has run out of story ideas and is simply recycling past stories in new settings. That impression doesn't change with his latest book Prisoner of Birth, which has essentially the same storyline as the author's first book Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less - with some Shawshank Redemption thrown in for good measure. The good thing is that Archer's storytelling skills themselves haven't diminished that much and he is able to spin a good yarn that keeps us turning the pages.

The book dives into the plot right away as Danny Cartwright is celebrating with his fiance Beth and her brother Bernie - who also happens to be his best friend - at a bar. Four upper-class men create trouble and then accost Danny and Bernie in an alley behind the bar. Beth goes to get help and when she returns, she sees that Bernie's been stabbed and is now dead. Danny is arrested by the police and after the trial, where the 4 men serve as witnesses, is sent to jail for the murder of Bernie. Determined to extract revenge on the 4 men when he gets out, Danny tries to make the best of his time in prison. And a few prisoners who come to believe that he is innocent, are willing to help him.

Archer's stint in prison probably gave him an inside look at England's prison system and that knowledge helps him as he describes Danny's time behind bars. While there a few mentions of gangs and the like, the proceedings are kept light for the most part. Danny's escape is a little far-fetched but the fact that the novel is presented as a modern-day update to The Count of Monte Cristo gives us an idea about what's coming and that makes it a little easier to swallow. The revenge itself - the most crowd-pleasing part of the book - feels too short. Danny's plan is somewhat complicated but consists of just one long act before his victims catch on to him. While the setup is long, the payoff feels a little rushed. The book ends with another trial but a character who was in the sidelines before moves centerstage and makes it a lot more interesting than the first.