Lady Snowblood

Lady_Snowblood_(film)

Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is a classic revenge tale, enlivened by an awesome heroine and a gleeful embrace of blood, gore and groovy music. If, like me, you enjoy South Indian revenge masala films or you liked Kill Bill, this is a perfect fit.

Yuki (Kaji Meiko) is born to avenge her parents and brother. Her mother was jailed when she killed one of the men who raped her.  Driven and adamant, Yuki seeks out those who destroyed her family and takes her bloody revenge.

The film is based on a manga and retains the strong visual style and chapter format complete with title cards. Much of the exposition is through narrative voiceover or a character’s inner monologue, again mimicking the graphic novel. The film is set in 1882 but while the costumes and sets are notionally historical in tone, the music and editing is firmly of the 1970s. The excellent soundtrack (by Masaaki Hirao) ranges from lounge to soulful pop with a dash of funk and I felt it worked well in to underscore the action, as well as maybe showing Yuki was out of step with her time. The elements often reflect and amplify the dramatic tone, with crashing waves or howling wind mirroring Yuki’s turmoil and snow is a constant reference. The action is stylised enough that the gory scenes are still exciting but also feel a little at a remove so are less confronting. The fight scenes are heavy on red paint and sound effects that range from the metallic ring of blade through bone to the gluggy suck and slurp of soft tissue torn asunder and the sound of blood escaping from a high pressure hose. Buckets of blood and frenetic fights are contrasted with a lyrical beauty and often meditative pace.

The crime that Yuki is avenging took place before her conception, but she can recall everything from the moment that her eyes first opened. The extent of her mother Sayo’s rage and determination was shown in a darkly humorous montage of her shagging any man with a pulse in any corner of the prison, desperate to conceive the child that would avenge her family. That strong bond with her deceased mother Sayo (Akaza Miyoko) makes this vengeful tale come alive. This isn’t a second hand obsession that Yuki could walk away from. She was raised as a ‘child of the netherworld’ – someone beyond even the compassion of Buddha. Repeatedly told she had no other destiny, she saw no reason to doubt that.

From a distance Yuki is a demure kimono clad figure carrying her trademark parasol, but Kaji Meiko is fierce. Her gaze is direct and challenging as Yuki has no fear or reason to want to outlive her targets, and her voice can be harsh and edgy. Yuki’s emotions are channelled into her mission of revenge and her nihilistic world view doesn’t allow for indulgence or frivolity. But she isn’t immune to softer feelings, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. She acts out of some kindness towards the daughter of one of her victims and that comes back with a sting.

The action scenes are reasonably demanding especially, one imagines, in a dress and she does wear some fabulous outfits. I also loved the way her eyes would light up in some fights, whether that was sheer amusement at the paint splattered shenanigans or as a sign of Yuki not being completely frozen.

The writer Ashio Ryurie (Kurosawa Toshio) may have sad puppy eyes and tousled 70s hair, but he is more than just a bit of eyecandy. He sees the enigmatic woman and is instantly intrigued. He romanticises Yuki in some ways, but she forces him to confront the truth. She kills because she wants to, feels she has to, and she is good at it. He draws a manga of the mysterious Lady Snowblood and uses it to try and pressure the remaining two targets into revealing themselves. Even under torture he refuses to betray her. Initially she rejects his interest and affection but she does start to think about life after the mission is complete. They have some chemistry but romance is not a priority when there are so many people that require killing. And what self-respecting revenge drama could pass up the opportunity for a birth secret and a dodgy disguise?

Yuki is a loner, but she doesn’t work alone. She was kept on task by one of her mother’s friends from jail and the enigmatic priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) who trained her to kill. She also recruited Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), a kind of beggar king who uses his network to investigate the whereabouts of Yuki’s intended victims. The cast is quite small but the world within the film is rich.

See this if you like action films with a kickarse lady protagonist, enjoy the skewed manga sensibility with a strong visual punch or just want to know how much of a debt Quentin Tarantino owes to Shurayukihime. 4 ½ stars!

Gunday (2014)

Gunday poster

I missed Gunday in the cinema as I was in Tamil Nadu at the time of the film’s release, and it had finished its run by the time I got back to Melbourne.  It’s a film that I think would show better on the big screen to fully appreciate its boisterous lead men and riot of colourful masala, but it’s still an entertaining watch on DVD.  Ali Abbas Zafar takes us back to the buddy films of the seventies, although doesn’t quite ever manage to reach the same heights as The Shashitabh films of that era.  Still, buffed and oiled leads Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor have a fine bromance while Priyanka Chopra adds glamour and style to the proceedings.  Add in some Irfan Khan and you have the recipe for a vibrant mix that is all the better for not being just another rehash of a Southern India film with a Northern twist.  There are some issues with the film; the excessive amounts of slow-mo and a bit of a lag in the second half being the major offenders, but otherwise there is plenty of colour, glamour and camaraderie to make Gunday well worth watching.

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The film opens as young Bikram (Darhsan Gurjar) and equally young Bala (Jayesh V Kardak) seal their friendship in a Bangladeshi refugee camp when Bala rescues Bikram from a sleazy army guard.  The two mates have their feet set on the road to crime from an early age, acting as gun couriers in the camp and subsequently stealing and selling coal after they reach Calcutta.  Initially I thought that Ali Abbas Zafar was going to shine a spotlight on difficulties faced by Bangladeshi refugees in India, or perhaps focus the drama on child abuse, poverty or displacement due to war, but although he starts with a rejection of Bikram and Bala due to their background, apart from their own statements about the discrimination they have encountered there is little else in the film which follows this theme.  As in many seventies films, anything with the potential to be serious is glossed over and we quickly move forward a few years to the adult Bikram (Ranveer Singh) and Bala (Arjun Kapoor) and their current life of crime.

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While Bikram and Bala may have started small, they have somehow worked their way up in the intervening years to become Calcutta’s biggest gangsters.  Although a gang is occasionally mentioned, their opening scenes show them working with each other to remove a local gangster and steal his coal.  There is no doubt that they are brutal killers, but as a useful side-line they finance schools and hospitals, cementing their ‘lovable rogues with hearts of gold’ personas.  The contrast is clear – dirty deeds are done covered in coal dust, while philanthropy comes courtesy of oiled chests, unbuttoned shirts and sharp white suits.

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So, having established that the friendship between Bikram and Bala is the defining feature of their lives, the scene is set for upheaval when they meet and both fall in love with club dancer Nandita (Priyanka Chopra).  But the romantic rivalry is not the only problem they face.  Assistant Commissioner of Police Satyajeet Sarkar (Irrfan Khan) is on their trail and searching for even the smallest sniff of evidence to lock the boys away for their criminal activity.  It’s a well-trodden path but mostly good performances from the cast make it a fairly enjoyable one to walk, while a few plot twists help maintain momentum.  Irrfan Khan is the standout here, and he is smooth and polished as the ACP while still maintaining a street cop vibe as he pursues Bikram and Bala.

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GundayGundayRanveer and Arjun have good chemistry together but individually Ranveer impresses more in his role as Bikram.  That’s partly due to Bikram’s more shaded character and Ranveer certainly has more opportunity to show off his acting skills, but he also has so much energy that he seems to explode off the screen.  It’s noticeable in the songs that Ranveer is putting in more oomph than Arjun, and the difference in energy levels causes a lull in the second half when the focus moves onto the characters as individuals rather than as a pair and attention is focused on Bala.

Bala is a more two-dimensional character and is limited by his depiction as headstrong and angry without a sense of burning injustice or any tempering balance to offset his constant rage.  There’s also a certain inevitability to Bala’s actions while Bikram seems to be more in control of his own destiny and frequently stops Bala from rushing off to do something stupid.  Bala comes across as just plain angry and Arjun’s performance occasionally slips into simply bratty and petulant in contrast to Ranveer’s slightly more mature and definitely more nuanced reactions.  However in the scenes with the two together, Arjun and Ranveer do make a likeable pair and the film relies on their jodi to keep the masala quotient high.

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Priyanka Chopra looks amazing as the sultry singer Nandita, and Ali Abbas Zafar cleverly develops a contrast between her on stage persona and sari-clad and demure appearance when out shopping in the market.  It makes her seem more of a real person and less of a clichéd love interest although she doesn’t have much else raison d’être initially.  However as the story unfolds and she becomes more involved with Bikram and Bala there is more scope for her as an actor and she makes the most of her role in the second half.  Along with Irrfan Khan she appears as a very polished performer, while support stalwart Saurabh Shukla is effective in his small role.  The two young actors who play the gangsters as children are also impressive, hamming it up for the camera and generally fitting well into the seventies vibe.

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The masala feel of the story is enhanced by references to Sholay and Mr India, including a memorable fight scene to the backdrop of the later, while songs from Pakeezah and Disco Dancer in the background help settle the film firmly into its adopted era of the seventies.  The costumes also add to the cheesiness of the film, and Ranveer and Arjun are given plenty of opportunity to show off their manly chests in a variety of gaudy shirts.  Nothing to complain about there!

Although Gunday falls somewhat short of ‘classic’ masala it’s a good attempt to recreate the magic of seventies Bollywood and gives me hope that the genre is still alive and kicking.  Although the elements are all there, they don’t quite gel together to give the complete package despite good performances and plenty of onscreen chemistry between the main leads.  A little more depth to the characters would have helped, but Gunday is still a rollicking yarn that delivers plenty of action mixed up with a serving of dosti and betrayal – and that is plenty to be going on with. 3 stars.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

Velaiyilla Pattathari

I laughed, I cried, I clapped and cheered along with everyone else in the cinema, and finally I left with a big grin on my face.  Dhanush hits all the right notes in his 25th film with a full mass entertainer that has something for everyone.  This wasn’t the film I expected after seeing the trailer and despite a rather predictable storyline I was completely captivated by the infectious energy Dhanush brings to the screen.  Writer/director Velraj seems to have started with a blend of a number of previous Dhanush roles (he does seem to play the part of an unemployed layabout quite frequently!), but as the story develops the differences become clear and in any case, with the quality of the actors, any similarity ceases to matter.  What starts out as a family drama evolves into a full action adventure featuring snappy dialogue and perfect performances from pretty much the entire cast.   I loved every moment, from Raghuvaran riding his dorky cycle taking his brother to work, to the final shirtless fight scene and even the clichéd pre-interval ‘shock’ which segues into a perfect emotional response from Dhanush.  Paper-thin plot aside, this is a film to savour.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

As the title suggests, Dhanush is the out of work loser in his family, with a father who fails to understand his ‘difficult’ son.  His younger brother Karthik (Hrishikesh) is taller, has a job and is held up to be the ideal son in stark contrast to Raghuvaran (Dhanush).  Samuthirakani plays their father and his disapproval is wonderfully understated, so that it’s hard to tell if his condemnation is genuine or simply masking concern for his jobless son.  Samuthirakani has a perfectly gruff and irritable exterior and escapes stereotype by the realistic alternation between criticism and approbation of his eldest son.  Meanwhile, Saranya Ponvannan is a stereotypical Southern Indian ma, but she is perfect in her role and makes much more of her character than seems possible at first glance.  In particular, her reaction to Raghuvaran’s fight with some hired thugs in her front yard is hysterical!  Again it’s little touches and Saranya’s ease of expression that lifts her role out of the stale and mundane, while such attention to detail in the characterisation ensures the appeal of the characters and bolsters the time-worn storyline.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

The first half of the film focuses on the family dynamics and Raghuvaran’s dreary days as he spends his time filling in job applications and doing the household chores.  There are plenty of lighter moments though as Raghuvaran looks after his dog Harry Potter, and tries to catch a glimpse of his new, reportedly attractive next door neighbour.  Velraj mixes small every-day occurrences with more significant events to gradually build a picture of Raghuvaran’s ambitions, morals and general mind-set which in turn sets up the rationale for the action in the second half.  Raghuvaran is determined to get the job he wants and not just take any work for the sake of becoming employed.  The only thing which seems to have any power to change his mind is his attraction to Shalini (Amala Paul) and their budding romance.

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Amala Paul doesn’t have a large role in the film, but she turns in a good performance and has plenty of onscreen chemistry with Dhanush.  Their romance is sweet with Shalini taking the more aggressive role, and it’s a pleasant change to have a film where the hero isn’t a creepy stalker. Or at least not as soon as he gives up his telescope to his mother!

The second half follows Raghuvaran’s fortunes once he does find a job, and the whole dynamic of the film changes to more hero-centric action with slickly choreographed fight scenes and the requisite villain.  Vivek pops up in a fairly subdued role to add some mildly amusing comedy, and there is a second heroine (Surabhi) although her storyline peters out when the action ramps up.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

Amitesh is Arun, the villain of the piece.  He’s a rich boy given control of his father’s company despite a lack of talent and what I would call nounce, and for various petty reasons and sheer spitefulness decides to eliminate his competitor in the world of building development.  It’s a tad far-fetched but I did like the rather brattish and petulant character of Arun which was a respite from the typical brutal world-domination style villains usually encountered.  Amitesh doesn’t really match up to Dhanush in terms of acting skills and it’s fairly obvious who is going to win any encounter, but the various plots and counter-plots are fun.  I also appreciated the fairly accurate representation of a visit to the optometrist and an eye examination in the second half since attention to eye health is rarely featured in movies!

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I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since it was released, and the songs are even better in the context of the film.  Dhanush dances up a storm and the choreography is well suited to the characterisation.  Udhungada sangu is probably my favourite but Anirudh Ravichander’s music and Dhanush’s lyrics (yay for subtitles!) are well matched to the screenplay and the songs are sensibly placed in the narrative.

The entire cast are all excellent but with a strong screen presence, Velaiyilla Pattathari is very definitely Dhanush’s film through and through.  He nails the role of Raghuvaran and as always I am completely amazed by his ability to make me believe 100% in his character, no matter how improbable or unlikely.  The interactions with his co-stars are flawless and when it gets to a long and simply brilliant monologue his facial expressions, body language and delivery all combine to make it one of my favourite scenes this year.  The mixture of comedy, action and drama, plus superb performances makes this one of Dhanush’s most entertaining ‘commercial’ films in recent times and I’ll definitely be heading back to the cinema to catch it again.  Highly recommended – I loved it!

Gajakesari

Gajakesari

A very big ‘thank-you’ to Roopesh and Kannada Movies Melbourne for the opportunity to see Gajakesari in the cinema here in Melbourne.  This is the first time I’ve seen Rocking Superstar Yash, and I have to say he is pretty rocking!  However the real star of the film is an incredibly well trained elephant called Arjuna, who not only steals every scene when he appears but also perfectly defines the meaning of ‘on-screen chemistry’ with his co-star.  Noted cinematographer Krishna has stepped out from behind the camera to write the screenplay and direct this action adventure, which does mean that there are beautifully framed shots throughout even if the screenplay does drag a little at times. On the plus side there is an excellent flashback to a past life which helps lift the film out of the ordinary, and the combination of good fight sequences, an entertaining storyline and a charismatic elephant make Gajakesari better than average.

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The story opens with the introduction of chief villain Rana (Sadhu Kokila) who intimidates the local politician into giving him the right to develop a tribal area somewhere in Karnataka.  After establishing that Rana has the nastiest henchmen and also the most googly eyes in SI cinema, the film moves location to a temple in Mysore to introduce Krishna (Yash).  Krishna is a modern guy who rides a Royal Enfield and likes to hang around with his two friends, but is about to discover that his freedom is coming to an end.  As a child Krishna was promised to the temple and is supposed to take over leadership from the current Mutt (Anant Nag), not something he has any real desire to do.  However there seems to be an escape clause – Krishna just has to donate an elephant to the temple and will then be free of his obligations.  Now I can see some of the logic behind this since an elephant would no doubt be much less trouble than a rowdy young man.  Still it seems to me that a herd of goats would possibly be more useful and easier to house than an elephant.  Regardless of convenience, the temple wants an elephant, so Krishna obediently heads up into the hills to find his pachyderm.

Gajakesari

Luckily for Krishna he easily finds a small tribal village where there are plenty of elephants and the villagers are keen to help him in his quest.  However the local elephants don’t appear to want to leave their cosy jungle and since their leader is the particularly angry and intractable Kalinga (Arjuna!), it seems likely that Krishna may have to enter the temple after all.  Krishna though, is a man who seems especially blessed by his temple gods and he manages to calm Kalinga just in time to enlist his aid in fighting off Rana’s thugs.

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This is the start of a beautiful friendship, based (according to the village shaman) on the circumstance that Krishna is the reincarnation of hero Baahubali and Kalinga the reincarnation of his elephant.  This leads into an excellent historical flashback with plenty of heroism and action, although the low budget costuming for the attacking army is a little disappointing.  Baahubali and his elephant look awesome though!

In the village Krishna also meets Amoolya, who ostensibly is there to record birds but really just seems to be looking for trouble.  She has a tendency to wear inappropriately short shorts around the village and while tramping around the jungle, and to add further insult indulges in patronising photography of the villagers.

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Sadly her character is poorly conceived as she looks nothing like the scientist she is supposed to be and instead is a 2 dimensional throwaway heroine with little apparent rationale for her romance with Krishna.  Amoolya does her best but there is very little she can do in such an unconvincing role while looking uncomfortable in most of the outfits.  Her best moments are in the songs where she does get the benefit of pretty and dance-friendly shoes, but it’s not enough to justify her presence in the rest of the film.

This really is Yash’s film and he is excellent in his role as Krishna.  He’s lackadaisical and perfectly casual as Krishna but takes on a completely different and more martial role when we see him as Baahubali.  The relationship between Krishna and Kalinga is the lynchpin of the plot in the second half and the two carry it off perfectly – excellent acting by Yash and great screen presence by the elephant combine to make an impressive duo.  Forget Amoolya, this is the real relationship that matters in Gajakesari!

Yash also looks great in the songs, and not just because he always matches his shoes to his outfits.  He has plenty of charm and while his Krishna appears to be a lovable rogue, he also manages to convey an innate honesty and sense of moral integrity.  No wonder his elephant loves him and the villagers rely on him to defeat Rana and save their village.

Gajakesari

Overall Gajakesari works due to Yash’s strong screen presence and a good story.  It doesn’t need the added burden of a romance, particularly when it fails to ignite and the heroine seems so completely out of place.  The scenes set in the past are definitely a highlight, but the action in the present day is almost as good, and the inclusion of an elephant as a fighting partner is inspired.  Definitely one to catch in the theatre if you can and appreciate just how much star quality one elephant can bring to a movie.

Pistolwali (1972)

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I often wonder how gangs of ne’er-do-wells get along before they reach the critical mass that attracts a hero to sort them out, and what it is that they do all day. Pistolwali doesn’t answer the first of those questions, but it does provide plenty to look at as you ponder whether what they do all day is make their own outfits and fight over the dress-up box.

K.S.R Doss’ Pilla? Piduga? was either dubbed or partially reshot in Hindi as Pistolwali. Both (unsubtitled) films are on YouTube so choose your poison. I have chosen to use the Hindi version as some actors and both Helen and Jayshree T appeared to be speaking Hindi and this film is all about the authenticity…Plus I understood more of the dialogue even if I couldn’t read the significant clue written in blood.

Like so many other Telugu cowboy themed revenge films, this one is set in a time and place that exists only in Telugu cowboy themed revenge films.The movie opens with Raaka (Satyanarayana Kaikala) and his gang attempting a train heist. A brightly clad cowboy (Ramakrishna as Amar) puts them out of business from his perch in a convenient tree. It’s cowboys vs cowboys and hat colour is not a reliable indicator of anything.

Maybe if we saw the floral sunhats being stolen from helpless old aunties it might be suitably Bad, but instead it just looked like a job lot guaranteed to brighten up every occasion. And there was that one guy who just painted his scalp silver. Reeka (Prabhakar Reddy) seems to have fewer marbles and fewer outfits than Raaka. He throws childish tantrums that quickly escalate into homicidal rampages. And that is the nicest thing I could say about him.

“South Bombshell” (according to the poster) Jyothilaxmi is Neelu. She is first seen cavorting in a daring swimsuit but later changes into equally fashion forward pantsuits. The villains go too far when they steal from the temple, and Neelu sets off in pursuit. She swaggers, shoots and curses like a hero rather than a heroine relying on womanly wiles, and generally she rescues herself. Jyotilaxmi wears some abbreviated costumes and gets a big dance number, but Neelu isn’t a girly girl. Neelu gets roughed up by her adversaries but how to say this… they don’t get rapey and creepy with her despite the allure of her midriff. She is a foe and they deal with her as a threat, not as a plaything. She is tough cookie and I suspect it would take a bit to outrage her modesty in any case. When Helen gives it her all in Hoga Sa Hoga, Neelu fills the time honoured role of hero looking like they’d rather be elsewhere. Although that may also be professional item girl rivalry.  Neelu has her own ideas and just goes and does her thing. Even if that includes falling through a trapdoor and wrestling a (sight impaired) tiger.  And she has a straightforward approach to relationships.

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I am not sure it was desire for authenticity or just directorial cruelty that had her struggling to get on and off horses, but it looked like Jyotilaxmi did a lot of her own action scenes.

The viewer learns that Raaka is Neelu’s biological father long before she does.  Raaka raped Lakshmi and left her for dead before also maiming his friend and rival for Lakshmi’s love. She fell pregnant as a result and she and the baby were taken in by her now one-legged true love who seemed to think it was the right thing to do. He may have been grooming Neelu for vengeance as well, but he seemed like an affectionate and over indulgent filmi Daddy. Neelu was none the wiser about her parentage until quite late in the film. That might all sound a bit progressive so let me assure you that the way it was revealed to her made me deduct a lot of the good parenting brownie points.

Ramakrishna is technically the hero but Neelu overshadows Amar in all respects. He does an OK job and he doesn’t get in her way, but apart from some excellent outfits he achieves little of note. Although I did giggle at his inept dealings with the ladies. On the subject of costumes, it looks as though each main character was issued with one distinctive pair of boots and they pretty much wear them throughout. Raaka’s boots were particularly special and Satyanarayana Kaikala was suitably over the top to match. And the outfits did help a little with identifying characters in the many and varied fights and action scenes. K.S.Madhavan threw everything and the kitchen sink into the stunts. However I have to say that the plot is quite cohesive and to an extent, I would almost say logical.

The background music is a brilliant mish-mash of fuzzy surf rock and funky Hammond organ with classic cowboy guitar strumming and the odd slide whistle. The song set pieces are unashamedly random and the film has an embarrassment of item girls that all get a guernsey in featured numbers.

Jayshree T is always so perky, I love watching her dance. She always seems to wear more hair than clothes but I never see her as really skanky.

 

Helen and her creepy blue contact lenses appeared in a nightclub song and Jyotilaxmi got a dance in a fabulous Fauxgyptian inspired village set with what may be happy go lucky tribal cannibals. The camera is often at crotch level which is a bit confronting. But to be fair, the camera wasn’t just upskirting the ladies. Once seen, never unseen.

This is one of my favourite heroine-centric B movies from 1972 and Jyothilaxmi is perfect as the righteous gunslinger. See it if you have ever harboured thoughts of wearing a fur trimmed vest with fringed pants but weren’t sure how to accessorise, or if you want a primer on tiger wrestling for the modern lady. 3 stars!