Revenger (2018) – Review

Park Hee-soon (left) and Bruce Khan (right)

With the South Korean martial arts movie Revenger, Netflix adds to its growing catalog of hyper-violent action movies. But, is it able to match the standards (for better or worse) set by the other acclaimed movies – the two Raid films, the other two Iko Uwais starrer Headshot and The Night Comes For Us, and Keanu Reeves’ neon-drenched ballistic ballet John Wick – available on Netflix?

Bruce Khan, who plays the protagonist, doubles up as the screenwriter for the movie, which is directed by Lee Seung-wan III in his debut. As you may have guessed by the title, the movie tells the story of a man seeking revenge on a ruthless criminal who murdered his family. That’s right, the staple of the revenge genre (my condolences, there, to the fictional families who have died so that we could enjoy the sweet nectar of revenge exacted by punching the wrongdoer to a pulp).

So, what’s new? This time the “revenger” must infiltrate a prison island, fight off hordes of criminals, make a bunch of allies, dispatch a few more along the way, and then punch the villain to a pulp. So, yeah, it’s a generic revenge movie caged in a poor man’s Hunger Games, which itself is a poor man’s Battle Royale.

But I am sure the people (including me) who would watch this movie wouldn’t want the movie to be burdened needlessly with a plot for the sake of it. Too many plot lines, characters, and convoluted storytelling seem forced and take away the impact of the action. The good news is there is none of that to worry about, and the movie delivers on the action promised in the trailers. The bad news is, apart from the action, there is nothing to worry about. None of the characters are fleshed out and the plot only exists as a breather in between the seemingly relentless fight scenes.

Bruce Khan, who has worked in the South Korean movie industry as a stunt performer, brings all the years’ experience to the screen. And the result is some really great hand to hand combat sequences. In fact, the action is the only redeeming factor about the movie, and Bruce Khan the only custodian of the winning combination of punches and kicks, for the script allows no one else to shine like Bruce does, which is easy to see why when the credits roll.

I would definitely like to watch Bruce Khan in the future, but only if he lets someone else write the screenplay.

Padmaavat (2018) Review Published at Asian Movie Pulse

A lot has been made about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s adaptation of Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem “Padmavat” (1540). Even before its release, the film had been mired in controversy due to rumors regarding tampering with Rajput (an Indian community historically known for their valor and honor) history and a prominent figure, Rani Padmini, in their lore. From vandalism on set and threats to the actors and Bhansali himself by right-wing groups to the eventual delay in its release (it was supposed to release on December 1, 2017), “Padmaavat” has been through a lot of trouble (it even lost the ‘i’ from its title). All of this trouble with an extremist right-wing group gave an impression that probably the film could build a counter-narrative against the glorification of ‘jauhar’ (self-immolation Rajput women used to perform in order to save their honor from victorious enemies) in Rajput lore. But alas! It was too much to expect from Bhansali. [Read the full article here]

Mukkabaaz Review – it takes a brawler to overcome odds

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To start with the review, let me first address the most important aspect of the film or at least as the title suggests – boxing. The actors throwing punches at each other and ducking and blocking those really looked like boxing, both in the alleys of Bareily and in the ring. That is really something given Bollywood’s record of disrespecting sports by either filming sports moves with lack of authenticity or expecting that realism in movie-sports don’t apply as long as you have a charming actor facing the camera. Of course, movies these days are really going an extra mile to make sports look legit on screen – Dangal, Saala Khadoos (Mary Kom – as in the movie – was so lame), Chak De India are some good examples.

Sports on screen looks only as good as the commitment of the actor pretending to play it, and Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays an aspiring boxer in Mukkabaaz, looks every bit a boxer, right from his boxing moves to his physique to his gait. You can see the level of commitment this actor has shown for the film; it is way more than make-believe. Full marks there for commitment.

Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), even with its overriding themes of ambition and love against all odds which inevitably clash with each other, is a story of oppression and people rising against it. With the opening shot – a gang of gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes clobbering a couple of people for allegedly trafficking cattle for slaughter and recording it for circulation – Anurag Kashyap introduces a politically charged atmosphere, where crime against the minority is the order of the day.  While Kashyap doesn’t further indulge in commentary on communal politics (except in one more scene in the middle of the movie), he expands on the issues of caste, gender, and boxing – a sports equivalent of the marginalized in India.

Shravan Singh (Vineet) is the best boxer in Bareily, and under the tutelage of Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a former boxer and now a local gangster cum sports promoter, he aspires to make a name for himself as a boxer. Ever heard that love has the power to raise people out of their miserable existence? Well, Shravan Singh discovers just that when he sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Mishra’s mute niece and is quickly inspired to defy Mishra by refusing to do his bidding. Mishra takes a punch to his face and his upper-caste male ego, and from then on takes up the task to ruin Shravan’s boxing career. Things spiral out of hand when Sunaina, who falls for Shravan for standing up against her uncle, and Shravan decides to marry. To add salt to Mishra’s wounds, even Sunaina’s parents decide to set caste aside and bless the marriage.

That was just the skeleton of the movie. To get to the dense flesh you have to watch the film. At one point in the film, Ravi Kishan’s character, an upright boxing coach, tells Shravan to decide whether he wants to be a ‘mukkebaaz’ (boxer) or a ‘mukkabaaz’ (brawler), whether he wants to waste his talent fighting the system from outside the ring or make a future fighting it from within. This becomes a metaphor for the struggle of life – where you either brawl your way to glory or fight the hurdles while still playing by the rules of life -.as well as Kashyap’s own relation to the movie industry. I wonder could the ending of the movie be any reference to his experience of going mainstream with Bombay Velvet.

While a large portion of the movie is about Shravan’s fight against system and caste to realize his dreams and Mishra’s evil plans to sabotage Shravan’s career and his marriage, a tender loves story blooms amid all the hate and brawling. Shravan and Sunaina’s love is so intricately woven with the rest of the fight, that Shravan’s every fight becomes a fight not just for his boxing dreams or to defy social norms but also for his love for Sunaina. And as all of these motivations come together, we get a climactic fight that is cathartic, to say the least.

Zoya Hussain gives a knock out performance with her mute turn. She plays the role gracefully and with charm. There is no single emotion that she doesn’t manage to emote with just her eyes. The level of commitment that Hussain shows with her learning of over sign language is in no way second to Vineet’s. She portrays Sunaina’s love for Shravan, her angst at not being understood, he hatred and defiance of the patriarchy with deafening silence. It is not by the mere whim of the screenwriters that Sunaina is mute, it stands for the voicelessness of women who suffer every day at the hands of patriarchy. The rest of the cast also does a fantastic job and lends the movie a depth by assisting Kashyap and co-writers realize an immersive world which the film takes two and a half hour to build.

It is the storytelling talent of Kashyap, his sense of songs (great music by Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, and Nucleya) and dialogues that elevates what could have been another populist masala film by a lesser filmmaker. The way Kashyap weaves a tapestry of social issues around a masala framework and gives it a gritty and rustic treatment validates the point yet again that Kashyap is at his best when he walks the thin line between the commercial and the indie.

‘Wet Woman in the Wind’ – a raunchy tale of the battle of the sexes filled with visual wit

 

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image via justwatch.com

Wet Woman in the Wind is one of the five films released under the Roman Porno reboot project by Nikkatsu. To anyone aware of Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu, the name Roman Porno is likely to ring a bell. Roman Porno, a film series devoted to the showcase of an abundance of sex and nudity in films ranging across multiple genres, is accredited to have revived Nikkatsu’s market share, which had suffered a considerable drop with the advent of television. Established in 1971, the films under the label were essentially softcore porn with better production value than a pornographic film and considerable artistic merit; a lot of these films were critically acclaimed.

 

The makers of the reboot films stick to the sex and nudity clause – Akihiko Shiota (Wet Woman in the Wind) even goes beyond the call of duty and infuses the last half of the film with more sex than a pornographic film – while giving them their desired artistic touches.

Wet Woman in the Wind is one of the best entries in the reboot project. On the surface, it is a breezy sex comedy with lots of sex and as much humour. but under it runs a psychological tension of one-upmanship between the representatives of both the sexes. To put it in other words, the film puts the sex in the battle of the sexes and takes the battle part quite literally as naked bodies indulge in one amusing coitus after another.

Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) is a Tokyo playwright who is taking a break from the world of art and from ‘women’. He puts up a ramshackle camp in the woods and spends his time scavenging abandoned furniture and other domestic articles and brewing himself a cup of coffee. But this apparent idyllic existence comes to end when Shiori (a brilliant Yuki Mamiya) comes literally crashing into his life. Shiori, who has a hyperactive sex life, marks Kosuke as her next target in a rather usual Roman Porno and general movie tradition playing a sex-crazed vixen out to lure the man out of his disciplined existence. However, as the movie progresses and as Shiori manages to break through Kosuke’s guard bit by bit, we see Kosuke’s past catching up with him and undoing his pretenses.

Even before Kosuke’s guard is down we see a glimpse of his past ways with women when he tries to tame Shiori with his “intellectual superiority”. In a later moment in the movie, his old colleague arrives with her secretary and a troupe of male performers dressed identically as Kosuke. The series of orgies that follows humorously lays bare social hierarchy’s role in something as intimate and organic as sex. At the top of this hierarchy is a man, here Kosuke. Shiori is a rogue element, she does not acknowledge this hierarchy. For her, in a coupling, having the upper hand is as important as an orgasm. She brings down this hierarchy by literally bringing down the house and emerging on top, from the debris after the battle.

There is no doubt that the sex scenes are mostly for male gratification (the movie is a homage to older Roman Porno canon), however, by giving Shiori the agency and exaggerating the mostly hetero sex scenes and making the only lesbian sex scene the most erotic, Shiota subverts and takes a dig at the Roman Porno tradition.

‘Picture of Light’ is a deep meditation on nature, lust for knowledge and media

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Aurora Borealis might be the only thing that would, if ever, make me want to get off my ass and explore. I’ve harboured love for the northern lights ever since I read about them in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – of course it was mostly fantasy. Then I read more about them, saw videos and was struck by the beauty of this natural phenomenon.

However, Peter Mettler’s poetic existential meditation on the northern lights, the north, the small social circle of people surviving in the harsh conditions, is so overwhelming that I doubt seeing aurora with my own eyes would evoke the same emotions that I experienced watching the movie. Peter Mettler says in the documentary that images only capture reality, living the reality is not the same as looking at its representation. We understand things based on what we see or what it represents. I see Mettler’s documentary and feel the existential angst that runs through the frontier town of Churchill, the struggle for survival in the harsh landscape (-40 degree Celcius), people’s struggle with their conscience as they survive one day at a time, codes by which they live. I feel all that, but all of this is second hand knowledge. By chewing that piece of knowledge would I know what it is to see the aurora with my own eyes, or know what it feels to be out in a blizzard? No. Media doesn’t fill this gap. But what it does, especially a work like Mettler’s, is evoke an emotional response that make us question our place in the world, our relationship with nature and its beings, our lust for knowledge, our need to fill the empty spaces and silences – it gives us perspective on life, much like the one Mettler and his crew achieved on their adventurous journey up north.

The documentary constantly pits nature and technology against each other, civilization and wilderness, the known and the unknown, scientific evidences and personal experiences (they both try to explain northern lights in their own way). It works like an adventure story, where the explorers come looking for the exotic, intending to tame it, but return humbled. I like how there is not just one dominating voice, but voices recounting their own experiences with the harsh landscape and the phenomenon, voices that we may never have heard over the scientific explanations of what aurora borealis is. We would have missed the mythology.

Theeran Adhigaram Ondru – Review

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‘Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru’ is the best police procedural action thriller from India that I have seen, or maybe I have not been looking in the right places. Bollywood seems to have forgotten how to make one (I remember Sarfarosh). Although this movie wouldn’t give you a hardcore police procedural thriller like ‘Zodiac’, it squeezes in just the right dose of it to keep you engaged, I mean how many films can compare to Zodiac’s brilliance.

The movie has all you have come to expect from ‘South Indian’ movies (a generalisation of cinema – by people in mostly Hindi speaking regions – that is not Bollywood and is much richer than the latter) of the dubbed versions of which are frequently shown on Set Max and the likes. However, it cuts on the over the top fight scenes (there are still hints in it), gives you characters that are not caricatures, doesn’t treat the audience as children, and hence is smart (not for the sake of being smart), gives a menacing villain although underdeveloped, great performance from the lead, and edge of the seat thrill.

It could have done a bit more by offering a good character study of the lead, given the time spent on his domestic life apart from his life as a police officer. I wish they would stop casting actors from North India to play ‘heroines’, I mean are there not enough women in the southern part of India? And only if the foot chase scenes were good… Nobody is asking for an ‘Apocalypto’, but a bit more effort in editing and from actors would surely do wonders.

Having said all that the movie is still very good. Recommended viewing.

Sunday in Peking Review

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Chris Marker’s 22-minute video essay on Peking (now Beijing) is as jovial as a tourist’s demeanour while visiting a foreign land – a locale so exoticized in the tourist’s interaction with popular culture that he / she may refuse to acknowledge any other impression of the land on his / her visit and may even be disappointed upon not being treated to the promised exoticisms.

Few minutes into the film and you would be pleased / annoyed (depending on which side of the coin you prefer) at images of the China you have seen in popular movies or read in literature. Marker doesn’t make any claim about the film being anything other than a tourist’s reflection on the city of Peking.

Marker’s camera and even more so his words never lead the viewer on to believe that he / she is viewing a documentary about the life in the capital of 1950s China, because it is and is not a documentary, at the same time. However, it is much more than what meets the eye. On the one hand this attempt is a subjective portrayal of the land Marker, fascinated by the exotic images in a book, as a child desired to visit, while on the other  with its subversive wit tries to make it less exotic, by relating it to life in the west, or by draining all the exoticism from a “Chinese boxing” performance by revealing that the performers filmed were actually patients from a nearby hospital simply exercising. There are many more such examples that punctuate the exotic narrative with doses of reality or you may say familiarity to our own ways.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan Review

Tamil filmmaker, R S Prasanna, heads to B-town with his debut Hindi feature Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which is a remake of Prasanna’s 2013 Tamil movie Kalyana Samayal Sadhan. A rom-com at heart, the movie deals with the issue of erectile dysfunction, a growing concern among the young office-going population in urban centres.

I went into the theatre with very little expectation and with a very basic idea (as much I as could glean from the trailers) about the movie. And I am glad to say it didn’t disappoint. In fact, even if I had gone with a bit of expectation, given the effective pairing of Ayushmannn Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar (Dum Laga Ke Haisha) and the fact that it has been produced by Anand L Rai, there is not a lot to be disappointed with in the movie.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan tells the story of Mudit (Khurrana), who falls for Sugandha (Pednekar) and is soon (in a matter of a few funny scenes and probably a song) engaged to her. There is not much in way of complication for the two (unless you count Sugandha’s “na-mein-haan” or whatever logic) until one night in the absence of Sugandha’s family, they discover in the heat of a novice sexual encounter that nothing else apart from awkwardness rises. What follows is Mudit and Sugandha’s humorous yet determined attempt at getting married despite external and internal impediments.

Most of the humour in the movie comes from the fact that it is strangely nostalgic in the use of innuendos, at least in spirit (remember flowers making out?). While the innuendos are not that shy, they do not reach the vulgarity of Pahlaj Nihalani’s “Khada hai” song. The innuendos range from giggle-evoking to the absurd AIBish manhood analogies. Besides it also offers humour on the meta level – Vicky Donor. But what makes the film really worthy of a watch is its criticism of how society sees masculinity. And although the movie suffers from a lackluster final act, it is nevertheless highly entertaining, thanks to strong performances from the leads and the supporting cast and humour (bodering on the absurd and at times threatening to throw it off the rails), which mostly works in its favour.

Jagga Jasoos aims high but misses the mark

It is astonishing that in an industry (Hindi film – better known as Bollywood) where films without songs are an anomaly, very, very few films actually employ songs to drive the narrative, let alone try a musical: where songs are not only organic to the story but also embody the essence of the world the characters of the musical inhabit. In fact, song and dance go so hand in hand with Hindi films (true for all Indian films) that in the west or for that matter any part of the world where these films are seen (and loved) it is taken for granted that they are all musicals. Which is far from the truth.

Well, Jagga Jasoos, the newest offering from director Anurag Basu, is here to give the audience a taste of what a musical is like; it is the only attempt at the genre ‘I’ remember since Jaan-e-Mann (2006), which again is not the best of examples. Jagga Jasoos tries and does well, but unfortunately only till the first act, after which it is a long way downhill only to catch my interest again (I’ll talk about it later in the review)! SPOILERS ahead!

The film opens with a delightful shot of rural Purulia (in 1995 or so) and introduces us to Bagchi (played excellently by Saswata Chaterjee) aka Tutti Futti and Badluck Bagchi, whose status as the mascot of bad luck results in a classic goof up that sets the ball in motion. Then jump to present day Kolkata Book Fair where Katrina Kaif’s character, the narrator, introduces children to the books (I believe comics because that would be an obvious nod to Tintin) of Jagga Jasoos (Ranbir Kapoor), the eponymous hero. She takes the young fans down the memory lane of Jagga, a stammering orphan who is adopted by a kind and goofy man, Bagchi, who give him lessons for life (including sing-your-speech-to-stop-stammer lesson) and then mysteriously disappearing, abandoning him at a boarding school. At school Jagga develops a knack for detective work largely because he was shy enough to be alone and curious enough to make 2+2=4. Then voila! all of a sudden he’s all popular in school, confident and Sherlock-smart, while being shy and awkward only at the convenience of the script. Numerous things follow: he meets a journalist, Shruti (Katrina Kaif), stumbles on an arms trade trail, finds connection between the dissapearance of his foster-father and the arms trade plot point, goes on a quest to find him. Too much happening to give a damn about.

There are plenty of characters minor, major and numerous story threads and a lot of back and forth non-linear narrative stuff, which I kind of liked and I think worked for the movie because it is a movie about a sleuth and, let us face it, with a linear approach the plot with so many threads to follow would have resulted in a snoozefest. The movie takes a lot of time setting up things, too much time even for origin-story standards. Yet it is this part that I enjoyed the most in the movie. Jagga, in between flashbacks, solves two cases in the first act and these are staged amazingly to music and lyrics. I would have preferred these two cases to make up the whole movie instead of using them as a set up for something grand, which sadly doesn’t materialize. The next act that follows seems tired, with absolutely no steam left in it barring a few moments of fun (few being “Sab Daru Pi Ke Khaana Kha Ke Chale Gaye” song and Saurabh Shukla’s villianous turn). 

Another problem with this film is that while all the other actors perform really well, Katrina Kaif manages to mess up scenes which would otherwise have been fun to watch. This has been said a lot of time, I know, but my problem is not with Katrina’s performance alone, it is the casting choice that bothers me. I think she was a miscast as Shruti here and it really affected the whole experience of the movie. Besides her character was very underdeveloped as the rest of the characters in the movie, even Jagga’s. The only character arc Shruti completes is turning from a damsel in distress to a sidekick (who is the butt of most of the slapstick ridicules in the movie) and losing all interest in her quest to expose the arms dealers (for goodness’ sake! they killed her boyfriend! and there is also something called love for profession), letting the man of the movie, Jagga’s quest the centre stage. Really sad!

The globetrotting adventure that follows in the second act is beautiful to look at, as was the choice of settings in India, with lush greens of Assam and Purulia to the sands of Africa. Beautiful cinematography! However, this picturesqueness, our ‘good-looking’ lead pair and really good performances from Ranbir Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Saswata, and Rajatava Dutta, and some genuinely amazing moments fail to lift this overlong, unnecessarily convoluted film with underdeveloped characters from an average affair to an exceptional piece of film, which it had the potential to be had the producers been more confident of the movie and not crammed so much in one movie. Could have explored the character and his adventures in sequels, which this movie hints at. I would so go and watch the sequel despite the uneven experience with this one because it is revealed at the end that Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the main bad guy, who is polycephalic, and has kidnapped Jagga and his father. Talk about cliffhangers! Move over Bahubali!

The Poetry of ‘Masaan’

Bollywood-Masaan-Film-Review-Rating-Box-Office-Collection-Hit-FlopI write this post a day after watching Masaannot because I needed time to overcome the emotional impact of the movie to analyse it more objectively, but for the evocative poetry that renders each and every strand of emotion in the film, endearing (and that had me looking up the poets on the internet). Poetry not just of the great Urdu poets – Brij Narayan Chakbast, Dushyant Kumar, Bashir Badr – that were used in the film, but also of Varun Grover’s soul-strumming lyrics: he has deftly woven his passionate words around that marvel of a line by Dushyant Kumar – Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon  (O, how I shudder like a bridge when, like a train, you rumble by).

The simile becomes all the more potent in the film with the romance between Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). The great social and cultural divide that pose as a certain impediment to the joyous union of the lovers – caste – stands as one of the many symbols of the undying tradition that spawned along the banks of the river Ganga thousands of years ago.  Deepak belongs to the Dom community while Shaalu is from a higher rung of the caste ladder. Coming from a completely different background, Deepak, otherwise confident, is apprehensive of the perky, poetry-reciting Shaalu. The conversations between them, which have been realised in a very convincing manner, reiterate the cultural gorge between them.

The closest that Deepak comes to poetry is through songs – he makes a mash-up of popular Hindi film songs and lines of the great poets (mentioned above) and gifts Shaalu on her birthday. This is perhaps one of the first attempts in the film to bring about a happy marriage of the traditional and the new way of life(one of the prominent themes of the film is the conflict between the old and the new).

The music by Indian Ocean hits all the right chords. Coming from the masters of fusion rock, the music adds to the theme of the film. The sufiyana depth of the lyrics and the bold, in-your-face rhythm of rock music is apparent in all the three songs in the movie. The lyrics of Varun Grover weaves mystic and the worldly into one and that too so enchantingly that it becomes difficult to imagine the movie without the songs. In an age when the voice and intent of movies and their songs have grown so apart, the songs of Masaan restores faith in the necessity of songs in movies.

I just came across a post on Firstpost where Varun Grover has ‘decoded’ two of his songs –Mann kasturi  and Tu kisi rail si. Hum the tune and ponder on the beauty of the lyrics. Click here. 

Also, tell me what is your favourite line from the songs in the comments section below, mine is – Main hoon paani ke bulbule jaisa / Tujhe sochoon toh phoot jaata hoon.