Friday, May 30, 2014

CityLights Movie Review : A dark tale of the grim reality that must not be missed

Hansal Mehta's CityLights is one film I have been gushed about ever since I heard about it. After watching his earlier venture, Shahid, 2 years ago, I was convinced that Mehta has found his sleight in telling tales of the teething realities of our times. Gripped by the first trailer itself, I went in to watch the film first day first show, this morning. It is not a happenstance that he has cast the phenomenal Rajkumar Rao in this one, post their association in Shahid. The duo also won National Awards individually for the earlier film and Rao is undoubtedly India's current best actor. Contrary to the struggles faced by Shahid to find a theatrical release, the Bhatts (Vishesh Films) took up CityLights early on and have watermarked it with their traditional music style without robbing it off its essence. Yet, CityLights is far less greater than Shahid which goes on to say that it is hard to create magic on screen everytime you decide to make a film.

CityLights is a documented adaptation of the British-Filipino crime drama, Metro Manila, and takes utmost care to credit the original Sean Ellis film multiple times in its credit roll. Something that must be unusual for the Bhatt camp. Mooched into an Indian setting, Metro Manila becomes a film about a family which is forced to migrate to Bombay from a small village in Rajasthan after tragedy strikes the breadwinner, Deepak (Rajkumar Rao). A slapdash decision to land in Bombay throws Deepak, his wife Rakhi (Patralekhaa) and kid Mahi, in the middle of a sea of problems which they would have never imagined, neither were street smart enough to deal with. Lack of money is an ineffable disease in a big city, the one which sticks to your skin and leads you to worse deeds. Writer Ritesh Shah and director Hansal Mehta have crammed CityLights with smashing characters and disturbingly realistic portrayal of the grim realities of small people in big cities. Adversities come in galore in the life of Deepak and his family but all of it looks fairly organic, christened with striking performances from the whole cast. Mehta does not give in to cheap and manipulative sentimentality, infact checks it within the domains of reality. Watch the scene where Deepak finds out about the job of his wife or the scene where he comes home drunk for the first time, all of them profound moments weaved together searingly hit your guts. The problem with CityLights is its pacing. Once the character of Manav Kaul is introduced as Deepak's supervisor at the private security services, you start suspecting a budding tension as he smilingly talks about his despicable life. But the story takes too long to come around the major reveal of his intertwined plans, mostly running on the fuel of Deepak's existing money problems. Post the middle slump, the film picks up in the final 30 minutes and delivers a solid punch. On the whole, the original material of CityLights is not exceptionally engaging but Mehta adds a visceral touch to it rendering it much better. 

Produced by Fox Star Studios and Vishesh Films, CityLights is like most other Bhatt camp films - made on a stringent budget with good music to enable fast cash recovery at the Box Office. I met Hansal Mehta recently and he had said that he completed CityLights in less than the budget provided to him for shooting. However, it is hard to say he compromised on any production values. Dev Agarwal's cinematography is unrelenting and affects a deep sense of pain as Deepak goes through his journey while Apurva Asrani has done a splendid job at editing. Jeet Ganguly's music espouses the gravity of the film with much panache and works once again. Arijit Singh's Muskuraane and Sone Do are the pick of the lot.

CityLights is a completely honest attempt by Mehta to infallibly capture reality at its darkest hour. Such a film would not work under the hegemony of a popular star who cannot submit himself to the film. As for Rajkumar Rao, he grinds Deepak's character into a powder, mixes it with water and drinks it. The tizzy restrain, the callow naivety, and the rooted commitment he brings to this part is exceptional. Patralekhaa complements Rao perfectly, cautiously slipping into the shoes of Rakhi, underplaying her part, until she prances and pounces on her failing husband who comes home drunk, but still hugs him and sleeps next to him after. Yet it is Manav Kaul who steals the show here. Dressed in blue khakis as Deepak's supervisor, Kaul brings a fresh spin to the character and voraciously captures your attention even in a supporting part. His performance is pure brilliance. Most other characters have relatively much lesser significance but are indeed well cast for their roles making a shining ensemble. 

It is hard to imagine CityLights being made as sensitively by most popular filmmakers and this is where Hansal scores a punch, displaying the bitterly sobering realities with a subtle ease. It is also hard to imagine anyone else doing such justice to the vision apart from Rajkumar Rao and Patralekhaa. CityLights is a very hard hitting film made with a lot of sweat and effort, yet it falls somewhere in the middle due to its lack of meat. I am sure it will take a slow start at the Box Office but I urge you to go out and watch this one in theaters. It has an enduring aftertaste of honesty which we rarely find in our cinema of today. If not for that, the performances will surely bowl you over!

Rating - 3/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here

The Xpose Movie Review : An epoch busting mystery of the black hole

The legend Himesh Reshammiya is back. He has lost a lot of weight, dresses up in long overcoats and black sunglasses, combs his hair back, sports an inconsistent moustache and woefully mouths corny one-liners which do induce a chuckle. Yet, what can you do about a wooden face? More on that later. The first trailer of his latest venture, The Xpose, was blustery and garish, with some raspy editing. It was highly prophetic of the film we were to see in the the theaters. I was bloody pumped for this one, though. Sometimes you expect and want the film to be so bad that you have a blast poking fun at it in the theaters. Vicarious pleasures of film analysts, believe me. All the days leading upto its release I took it upon myself to herald a promotional campaign for it amongst all my peers, near and dear ones. After all, it is Himesh bhai who is coming back with his magnum opus, produced by AA Films and HR Musik, his own production house. The promos unfolded with ridiculous songs like 'Ice Cream Khaungi' to bearable imitations like 'Dard-E-Dilo'. All in all, The Xpose had caught the attention either for good or bad reasons.

In one of the recent interviews, I heard Himesh saying that he did not succeed as an actor in his earlier stunt because he was not committed enough. Portly much. But then The Xpose, directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, is an incendiary visit to the theaters as well. Incidentally, Himesh is credited for the Story and Screenplay of the film as well, along with Jainesh Ejardar and Bunty Rathore (dialogues). Rathore, singularly, must be lauded for the most ludicrous writing in a while, the one which makes you pull wool over your eyes. The Xpose is mounted on a fairly large scale, with a lot of style, but most of its style is reprehensibly misplaced. The film begins with a murder and introduces all the prime suspects, aka the recurring characters of the film as they attend the funeral of the deceased. Short scenes from their past are juxtaposed to give a peep into their characters, with Irrfan Khan's mundane voiceover. Thereafter, the film moves a year back when Ravi Kumar (Himesh), a famous South superstar, moved to the Bombay Film Industry. It follows Kumar's journey as he wallows his way through Hindi films, while occasionally falling in love with a starlet, Chandni (Zoya Afroz). The incidents lead upto the murder of a rival actress, Zara (Sonali Raut). Despite some hacky direction, cringeworthy lines and indelible acting, the first half does set up a mild intrigue of a decent watch. 

Post interval, The Xpose falls on its face as it plays out the details of the murder night in macabre detail, only to spur up one unintentionally hilarious moment after the other that become increasingly shocking to assimilate for normal human brains. The cat fight scene between two actresses at an awards party while the media clicked pictures had me stand up and clap at its chronic stupidity. The finale of the film belongs to some other world of filmmaking. As we are set up for a crackling trial of a high profile murder, Himesh bhai walks in in all black attire and solves the mystery over the wink of a eye. Why? Because he was an ex-cop. Facepalm activated. This courtroom trial scene has to go down in history as the most decrepit one ever. It is plain hilarious. Most of the build up in The Xpose is unreasonable as the story does not follow any structure, and the hollow desire to shock the audience actually leaves them flummoxed, shortchanged and angry. A special mention for the ending where two actors confess love to each other in front of the media. Why? Because Ravi Kumar was a man of principles and law, but he gives them all up for love. WTF! Oh and there is also a moment where a dude is holding a boom mike for a lipsync dance sequence, and that too on top of the camera. So much to treasure in this warped tale of brainlessness. 

I had mentioned about The Xpose's misplaced style earlier. The makers must understand that merely creating retro tunes and calling your film a period film does not make it one. The Xpose is set in 1960s but none of the frames look like any of the decades gone by. At best, it is a misinterpreted modern Production Design, passed off as 60s. The fancy is not the real fancy here, it is actually a muddle on screen, doubled by a million continuity errors in same scenes. Maneesh Chandra Bhatt's cinematography is jarringly uneven, fluctuating between the sullen Paris and abroad locations to a eye-hurting pulpy Bollywood. Ashish Gaikar's editing is a savior as the film ends in 113 minutes. The costume designers of this film need a crash course in styling. The clothes are definitely not retro and poor Himesh looks like a starved baby. While we are at Himesh, his music does produce some catchy tunes and you will not mind any of the songs in the film. Dard-e-Dilo and Catch Me are the best ones. 

Himesh Reshammiya has the acting range of a waxwork, and this is no breaking news. He does try his best to get into the shoes of Ravi Kumar, but the character itself is etched inconsistently, who does not stick by what he says or knows what he wants. Eitherway, Reshammiya looks placid while delivering the one-liners. Zoya Afroz is nothing like a great discovery, with unusually broad shoulders. Sonali Raut is not a patch on Zeenat Aman as she does her take on the famous wet saree scene of Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Her exposure of assets may be aplenty, but her exposure to acting is minimal. Yo Yo Honey Singh is also acting in this film. One more to the party of the unintentionally funny. Director Anant Mahadevan casts himself in one of the lead roles and looks ditsy. Rajesh Sharma and Adil Hussain have vast reserves of talent which has barely been touched upon here. Irrfan Khan looks woefully out of place even in a special appearance. Nakul Vaid is allright.

On the whole, The Xpose may be a fanciful affair for the Reshammiyas but is barely palpable for the audience. Even if you would be able to sit put for the first half, the second half relinquishes to the God of Morons immediately. Once again, the climax trial sequence is highly capable of jeopardizing your intellect with urgent effect. The film has taken an average start at the Box Office and I do not expect a huge turn of events in Himesh bhai's luck with this one. The film may have an interesting premise but they have actually made something else than what they set out to and Mahadevan must quickly add this to the list of duds he has made all his life. If you are okay with a film trying too hard to be cool, do not miss this one!

Rating - 1.5/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Manjunath Movie Review : Well-intentioned, but faulty

Manjunath, a biopic written and directed by Sandeep Verma, is a film that has the least limelight amongst the slew of releases this past weekend. When I had seen the trailer of the film long back, I had immediately been intrigued by it as I had only heard scant bits of the original death case of Shanmughan Manjunath. The film looked like a good compensation for my callow overlook as I was growing up. I decided to watch it first thing amongst the multiple releases and was a little underwhelmed. With literally no buzz around it, a film can still do decently well at the Box Office if its made stunningly. While Manjunath is an honest biopic, it leaves a lot to desire. 

Shanmugam Manjunath (1978–2005) is a marketing manager for Bharat Oil (originallly The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC)) who was murdered for sealing a corrupt petrol station in Lakhimpur Kheri, UP. This incident inspired several students at IIM, IIT and other institutes culminating with the IIM students setting up the "The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust" which ultimately fought for him during the trial for his death case and saw that justice was delivered to him. The film follows a docu-drama kind of approach as it unfolds incidents leading upto Manjunath's death. Director Sandeep Verma picks up his story from where the corruption around him had started attacking Manjunath's nerves like a typhoon, ultimately leading to him being considered mad, his recovery, his fight against mixing of kerosene in diesel, his execution and thereafter the national outrage. The film's premise makes for a fervor filled journey and it works because the story is rooted in one village and one situation, but a situation which has impacts around the country. The film stays true to Manjunath's original life, as documented in media and otherwise, without giving in much to fiction. It raises some very important questions to the educated lot of this country, who have come to terms with the 'chalta hai' attitude. The scene in the market where Manju argues with his best friend Gautam will stay with you for long. It mocks the very fake idealism of people with a lot of sincerity. 

The problem here is that Verma's hand as a director comes out amateurish, as he is unable to flesh out bespoke striking sequences/moments that will make such a film hard-hitting. The initial reasons for his madness appear half-baked, and so do the story after his death when the journey to redemption looks rushed while the parents' arc looks haphazard. Some creative choices made by Verma clumsily bog down the film which could have been very engaging otherwise. Verma uses original songs by the indie-rock band Parikrama, all through the film which only upset the tone and the mood of this village setting. The biggest facepalm moment arrives when right after Manjunath is shot, his spirit breaks into a stage performance. Again, this usage of the spirit to tell the story and then have moralistic arguments with his murderer in the jail is awry. Another problem with the film is the usage of a weird mix of English and Hindi dialogues, leaving a million inconsistencies in the origins of character. Frankly, most of the dialogue of the film is mundanely corny and it becomes worse in English. Cinematography also reeks of an amateur hand as even I could see the camera going out of focus in many scenes. Editor Sandeep Francis plays around in the first 30 minutes of the film when he shuttles back and forth in time, but settles on a easier route for the remaining. 

Manjunath is a complex character and debutante Sasho Satish Sarathy tries to give his best to the role. He brings in the required naivete and honesty, but also comes with a certain playfulness and instability of the man. But he does fall short in front of his opponent, Golu Goyal, played by a seasoned Yashpal Sharma. Sharma gets focus occasionally but shines like no other. Seema Biswas is effective as Manju's mother, while Kishore Kadam is miscast as his father. So is Rajesh Khattar as Manju's boss as he struggles to play a guy from UP. Divya Dutta, as Anjali (the one who started the trust), suffers from an underwritten role. Anjori Alagh (Manju's friend) does not get much scope while Faisal Rashid (Gautam, Manju's best friend) hams it up well.

On the whole, Manjunath is a very important film that brings us back to the scores of atrocities committed against men and women who stand up agaisnt corruption or other social evils. It is a well-intentioned attempt, apart from being a very sincere one. The film is falling despicably at the Box Office due to our ignorant film audience. I met someone connected to the film industry itself today who had no idea about such a film releasing. Irrespective of the technical shortcomings of the film, this is the dire state of most significant films which need all your attention. I am going with a slightly bumped up rating for this venture, only for its honesty. 

Rating - 2.5/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Public Ransom Movie Review : More like a public random

In his independent film, A Public Ransom, filmmaker Pablo D'Stair attempts a thriller to pay homage to the likes of Bresson and Fassbinder in terms of the technique used, which involves setting up the steady camera at one angle and letting the actors perform long takes in front of it. What he ends up doing is a mundane exercise to test your patience instead. A Public Ransom stems from an interesting premise but does not hold up, unfortunately. 

Taking off from the description given by the filmmaker, Steven (Carlyle Edwards) is a self-serving, amoral author of very mediocre talent. When he stumbles across a crayon-scribbled “missing child” poster with a scrawled telephone number and the words “Help Me?” written on it, he figures it to be harmless–and deciding to base a story around it, he calls the number. This leads to an encounter with Bryant (Goodloe Byron) who flatly claims to have actually kidnapped a girl, stating she will be released only if Steven pays a mere $2000 ransom within two weeks. Steven initially dismisses Bryant as a morbid prankster—until Bryant begins a relationship with his only friend, Rene (Helen Bonaparte) and starts popping up in his life in apparently coincidental, yet increasingly invasive and unsettling ways. Indeed, very intriguing. But the execution given to the script by D'Stair leaves a lot to desire. This is a dialogue heavy film, shot in grayscale, but an appalling chunk of those dialogues occur when Steven is talking on the phone. This makes the proceedings very dull. Most of the scenes involving two characters are staged like a theater production with minimal cinematic quality. In a lot of the scenes, he uses extremely murky long shots or mid-shots which give no idea of the proceedings on the screen. It takes eons before you can see a closeup of a character. In an attempt to achieve naturalism with the aforesaid technique, he detaches his audience from the film more often than not. A film is an audio-visual medium but this one can be watched even if you turn off the video. Some of the dialogue sequences may be very well written but lack the impact due to hammy execution by the leads. It is very easy to dislike Steven's character and the film in itself, as it repetitively charades on banality. As an audience, you cannot invest in any character because you never feel anything is at stake.

Produced on a minimal budget, the film appears to be a first time attempt of some friends. Paul Vanbrocklin's cinematography stays far away from the nerve of the film while Emanuella Scott's work at the edit looks like she just took the shot footage and put it in order. Amongst the actors, all have worked assiduously to give extensive long takes without missing a line but the impact is missing due to the over-the-top projection. Carlyle Edwards is good in some sequences, while Helen Bonaparte looks miscast. Goodloe Byron is barely seen in any of the frames.

On the whole, A Public Ransom is a largely experimental film but for a psychological thriller, it does not live upto either half of the genre. It is an interesting plot, which unfolds in the most disjointed fashion possible. Yet, it is a strong statement from an independent filmmaker who put it out for free viewing on the Internet. Except that most audience would not be able to sit through it. 

Rating - 1/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here