2.0

2.0.jpg

Shankar’s 2.0 is an amazing visual spectacle with incredible special effects and jaw-dropping action, but despite all the thousands of Rajinikanths, clouds of flying mobile phones and an unusually charismatic Akshay Kumar as the villain of the piece, it fails to fully impress due to a garbled and, at times, dull story. Not that the lack of a credible story really matters for a large-scale Superstar movie, but the transition between one incredible VFX scene to another really needed some sort of rationale to develop a relationship with the characters and bring in some suspense. And 2.0 just doesn’t have that connection. No matter how good Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar are in their roles, or how truly magnificent the visual effects are, at the end of the day for me the film needs a little more soul.

The film opens with mobile phones suddenly gaining a life of their own and zooming off into the sky all over Tamil Nadu. These opening sequences are excellent as Shankar shows just how pervasive mobile phone use is, including the moment when we see an entire family all staring at their phones just as the father announces that of course he spends quality time with his family. Everyone is here – those obsessed with taking selfies, people using their phone for work, for family connections, even one man using a mobile phone as a plaything for his child, and it for a time it seems that Shankar might be making a statement about overuse of mobile phones. But it’s not that simple.

Naturally Chennai is thrown into total chaos by the “great mobile phone disappearance” but the problems are only just beginning. A massive cloud of mobile phones transforms into a bird’s talons and starts ripping cell towers out of the ground, prominent mobile carrier company owners are attacked and a gigantic bird, formed out of mobile phones starts attacking people in the streets. This is seriously inventive stuff, and Shankar has allowed his imagination free rein to create magnificent visuals that really are spectacular, while the fast-paced action just never stops.

Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) is aided this time round by an android called Nila (Amy Jackson) whose body proportions are reminiscent of a Barbie doll, but who does at least get the chance to show off her superhuman skills in the battle against the villain, Pakshi Rajan (Akshay Kumar). Pakshi Rajan is an eminent ornithologist who ends up suiciding after he fails in his attempts to stop the radiation from mobile phones killing off his beloved birds. Thanks to ‘negative energy’ and all those dead birds, he somehow transforms into an entity capable of animating mobile phones, and sets out to destroy the humans who have caused all the problems in the first place. There is a flashback sequence that paints Pakshi Rajan as an environmental hero with Akshay Kumar playing him as an old, broken man who wears baggy cardigans and weeps for a dead sparrow – so naturally he’s a more sympathetic character than the self-absorbed Dr Vaseegaran. And that’s part of the problem I have with the entire film. Dr Vaseegaran seems to simply want to bring Chitti back to life, and show off his new-fangled invention to save the day, while Pakshi Rajan has a legitimate issue and a real crusade that’s easy to support. So, when Chitti arrives on the scene, it actually appears that he’s fighting on the wrong side since Pakshi Rajan doesn’t come across as a bad guy until much later.

Thankfully when the 2.0 reboot Chitti takes over, his swagger and snappy dialogue helps lift the second half, ably helped by the excellent visuals and inventive ways that a cell phone can be used to kill. Pakshi Rajan develops a villain-worthy sneer and his casual disregard for the thousands of people who end up having to dodge bullets and large pieces of football stadium during the finale does start to make him seem a least a bit nastier. Team Chitti though has an equal disregard for bystanders and finally pulls a stunt with pigeons that’s even more vicious than all of Pakshi Rajan’s gory killings. That has the effect of making Pakshi Rajan actually seem more moral than Team Chitti despite his murderous tendencies. To try and compensate, the last scene makes some attempt to promote Pakshi Rajan’s cause while still chastising him for killing so many people, but it just doesn’t work, although the final action sequences are brilliantly done.

I’m not usually a fan of Akshay Kumar, but he is impressive here and he does an excellent job of humanising Pakshi Rajan and giving him an almost plausible reason to attack mobile phones. I also appreciated his bird-like mannerisms when he transforms into a giant birdman and his dedication to the role by using feathers for eyebrows. For the most part he simply screams at the camera in bird form, but during the flashback sequence he does display the demeanour and despair of a broken man very well.

Rajinikanth is on screen for most of the film in one or more of his different characters – Dr Vaseegaran, Chitti or 2.0. He is as charismatic as ever in every appearance, although Dr Vaseegaran is even more annoyingly self-absorbed here than he was in Endhiran. Despite playing a robot, as Chitti and his alter ego 2.0, Rajinikanth gets to display plenty of personality and each time he appears he brings life and energy to the screen. Thankfully the annoying Sana only appears as a whingey voice over the phone this time round, while the rest of the cast only appear briefly, either to be killed by Pakshi Rajan or as part of the government trying to cope with the crisis. Sudhanshu Pandey appears as Dhinendra Bohra, the son of Bohra from Endhiran, but this seems to be a real wasted opportunity and his character isn’t well utilised despite a promising start.

I’m not sure exactly what Shankar was trying to say here – if indeed he was trying to say anything at all. Could this be a film against mobile phones and the way they have come to take over our lives? Is there really an environmental message here about radiation and the dangers purportedly associated with cell towers? It’s all rather muddled and the emotional back-story for the villain doesn’t help matters either. However, as an all-out action adventure 2.0 works well enough. A.R. Rahman’s music is used sparingly throughout the film, although there is one montage song and a dance track over the end titles, which is fun. Thanks to Rekhs for the excellent subtitles (in yellow too, so very readable) and kudos to cinematographer Nirav Shah for making the regular shots just as good as the VFX. Yes, most of the money has been spent on the effects in this film, and little on the screenplay, but given the end result I’d say overall it’s money well spent. I didn’t see the 3-D version, but even in 2-D the effects are simply superb and for that alone the film really does need to be seen in the cinema. For the rest, Rajinikanth is excellent, Akshay Kumar totally nails being a murderous birdman, Amy Jackson does well as an animated robot, and best of all with this plot, no-one was using their cell-phone during the show. That’s definitely a win!

Advertisements

I (2015)

poster

Shankar is a director who has proved in the past to have amazing vision and a seemingly unending wealth of imaginative ideas. Many of his previous films have been visually stunning with incredible effects and novel concepts, but he seems to have missed the mark somewhat with his latest movie I. He has the benefit of an excellent cast and a potentially interesting story, but somehow the sum of the whole is not as good as each individual part. The film has a few too many cringe-worthy moments to make me want to see it again although Vikram is superb, and Amy Jackson is also impressive despite a rather limited role. However their characters aren’t particularly likeable and the story meanders annoyingly along several inconsequential paths before finally reaching the predictable and cloyingly trite end. I’m not even going to complain about the dodgy medicine since there was so much else that bothered me more about the improbable and often distasteful screenplay, but the ‘science’ is just as far-fetched as the rest of the story. Really the only reason I can give to watch I is Vikram and his impressive ability to transform himself into just about anyone, and that’s not quite enough to justify the 3 hours plus of I.

The story revolves around Lingesan (Vikram), a body builder from the back streets whose ambition in life is to win the Mr India competition. Be warned, there is a lot of flexing and posing in the first half hour of the film, while Lingesan tries to win the Mr Tamil Nadu crown from a large number of other over-muscled and over-oiled men in very skimpy bathers. It’s quite impressive that Vikram managed to achieve this look, but it’s not attractive and I was much happier once he put his clothes back on and backed off on the oil. Unfortunately he doesn’t really stop the flexing and posing even when fully clothed.

There is also a ridiculous fight scene backstage at the Mr Tamil Nadu championships with Lingesan managing to fight off multiple opponents including his arch-rival Ravi (M. Kamaraj). Ravi is a much better contender for the title of Mr Tamil Nadu so it’s a little surprising that he takes Lingesan as an opponent so seriously, but at least there is a relatively valid reason for the ongoing enmity between the two men, even if it does seem unlikely.

Lingesan is also obsessed with model Diya (Amy Jackson) to the point where he purchases absolutely anything she has endorsed, and I do mean absolutely everything. It’s quite creepy initially but does move out of stalker territory once Diya and Lingesan meet and Lingesan starts behaving like a 13 year old besotted schoolboy instead. It’s not a lot better but at least it’s funnier. Santhanan provides the rest of the comedy as Lingesan’s brother Babu, and for the most part he’s reasonably amusing, although a comedy track really wasn’t needed given just how ridiculous the plot becomes in the second half of the film.

From body builder to model is apparently as simple as getting a haircut and shaving off a moustache and with that Lingesan transforms into successful model Lee on the basis of one ad campaign and a romance with his muse Diya. However to get to this point Lingesan has pissed off quite a few people including the obnoxiously sleazy model John (Upen Patel) who is furious at being foiled in his attempts to get Diya into bed. Diya’s transgender make-up artist Osma (Ojas Rajani) also falls in love with Lingesan and is hurt and vengeful after his rather forceful rejection of her advances. John’s behavior is fairly gross but nothing unexpected for a masala movie, but the ‘romance’ between Osma and Lee is badly developed and feels more homophobic and derogatory than necessary. I can’t decide if Shankar was trying to be clever here and make a point about how the world views people who are transgender given that the film is based in the advertising world and uses image and ideals of beauty to develop the plot, or if this really was just a bad piece of writing, but it’s hard to watch whatever the reasoning.

Interspersed with the frothy romance are flashes to the present day where a hunched and grossly deformed Lingesan has kidnapped Diya on her wedding day, and the story gradually shifts to a tale of vengeance and medical improbability. Here at least the idea of image and beauty does get a little more developed although the masala element is still very much to the fore. Lingesan seeks revenge on the people who have caused his illness and as scientific reality goes out the window the story gets ever more ridiculous until the Beauty and Beast song seems quite normal and believable by comparison. It’s also a pleasant relief from all the disfigurement and maiming, although like other songs in the film it’s not well integrated into the narrative.

There are a number of more mundane inconsistencies such as the sudden turnaround in Diya’s treatment of hunchback Lingesan and Lingesan’s continued strength and agility given his deformed body. Not that any of the rest of it makes any more sense, but there is too much that is implausible and the story becomes too far-fetched to take seriously. However there are also far too many scenes where the people variously handicapped as a result of Lingesan’s revenge are ridiculed and mocked for their appearance and disability. It’s part of the plot sure – these are people who now look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside, but I found this really quite shocking and abhorrent, particularly as it’s meant to be part of the comedy and is anything but funny.

This is definitely Vikram’s show and he does do an amazing job in portraying the two different faces of Lingesan.  Amy Jackson is much better than I expected, and the rest of the cast are all good given that they are all overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Vikram. The special effects by Weta Workshop are also very well done, and it’s such a shame that the story doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the visuals of the film. Of course it’s a story set in a world where image is all and appearance trumps substance at every stage so perhaps that’s not too surprising after all.

Sivaji (2007)

Sivaji is a wonderfully over-the-top film celebrating all things Rajinikanth. There are references to the superstar’s previous films and to his own life, plenty of classic Rajni style and he’s present in almost every frame. Sivaji also features stunning sets for the songs and a myriad of different looks for Rajinikanth throughout the film. While the story has an interesting plot involving corruption, the screenplay gets somewhat tangled in the numerous set-ups to introduce the next song or fight scene.  But in the face of so much else that is fantastic, the disjointed nature of the story doesn’t seem to matter. When the first song is as much fun as this, then the film is already a winner for me. This features Nayantara in a cameo role along with an incredible number of  men with round, jiggling painted bellies – I love it!

The film opens with Sivaji returning from the USA with truck-loads of money and deciding to set up a University and Hospital where everything will be available to the poor for free. His grand plans are opposed by local businessman Adisheshan (Suman) who blocks him at every turn. To make Sivaji’s life more difficult there is the practice of bribes and kick-backs that seems to be built in to the system at every stage. Despite his unwillingness to play along, Sivaji has no choice but to fall in line and pay everyone off if he wants to get his hospital and university built. I’m quite sure that all these people in yellow hats were the inspiration for minions in Despicable Me – or at least they should have been.

Ultimately this works to Adisheshan’s advantage when he contrives to have Sivaji arrested and charged in court. There Sivaji admits that he paid bribes to get permission to build and ends up losing everything. This might have been the end of the Sivaji foundation, but Adisheshan is the one person in Tamil Nadu who has no idea who he’s really dealing with and he rashly mocks his defeated enemy.  This sparks Sivaji’s quest for revenge, and the 1 rupee coin Adisheshan tosses at him to start his begging career becomes a talisman and also funds the start of the fight back. Sivaji devises a cunning plan to restore his finances and bring about Adisheshan’s downfall at the same time.

Rajinikanth is truly in his element here as the crusading Sivaji. He still has his trademark tricks, but this new  health conscious Sivaji spruiks the ‘cigarettes are bad for you’ message, catching mints and tossing his sunglasses instead of cigarettes. It’s all a little contrived, but the tricks are so much a part of any Rajni film that Sivaji would seem incomplete without them. There areplenty of fight scenes, and these are well choreographed by Peter Hein. The final showdown features some Matrix style action and Rajinikanth pulls it off with great style. If he has slowed down a little in some of the fight scenes and songs, well, that’s understandable but it’s barely noticeable. As well as the romantic songs, there is a fabulous sequence where Rajinikanth impersonates Sivaji Ganesan, MGR and Kamal Hassan and he gets really gets the mannerisms of the different stars very well.

During the course of his crusade against corruption, Sivaji meets and falls in love with Tamizhselvi (Shriya) and despite her family’s initial reluctance and dire predictions of disaster from the priest, the two go ahead and get married. Thankfully Shriya is much less annoying than usual, perhaps because she is totally overshadowed by Rajinikanth, but I stand by my previous observations that the more clothes she wears the less irritating she is. Her main raison d’être here is to look pretty in the songs which she does very well.

Other than her presence in the songs, Tamizhselvi is the ‘perfect Tamil girl’ of Sivaji’s dreams and that ensures plenty of traditional outfits and a fairly restrained performance, making her more tolerable than usual. Someone in wardrobe really does have a grudge against her though because she does appear in some of the worst outfits I’ve seen in the song ‘Style’.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this song for many reasons. As a song extoling style it has some truly dreadful costumes and the whole white-skinned Rajni just seems very wrong. I’m always perplexed by the quest for paler skin in India, but then I’m equally as baffled by the drive for tanned skin among Europeans. I don’t like the melody or the lyrics of this song at all, but it does feature an incredible selection of amazing wigs for Rajni and is worth watching for that alone. Pick your favourite style!

And the contrasting faces of Shriya.

While the film deals with the theme of corruption, there is still plenty of comedy along the way. Although much of the humour comes from Rajinikanth and his various mannerisms, Vivek is excellent in his role as Sivaji’s uncle Arivu and provides many funny moments. Even though I’d normally cringe at Arivu’s match-making technique of parading girls in front of Sivaji, Arivu’s character is self-aware enough to make this funny rather than crass.  There is more slapstick comedy in the scenes with Tamizhselvi’s family who disapprove of Sivaji and his exuberant family. The actor playing Tamizhselvi’s father (Pattimandram Raja) has some excellent expressions and I love the way he looks as if he smells something bad every time he sees Sivaji.

On the other hand, Suman’s Adisheshan is a very mild mannered villain without any real evil tendencies. Although I’m sure this is meant to make sure that all eyes are firmly on Sivaji, he still seems rather unimpressive in comparison. His demeanour however is quite realistic as a businessman with political leanings and his reasons for opposing Sivaji are understandable considering how much the free hospital and university will cut into his profits. His methods of opposition are also consistent with his character and perhaps S. Shankar is trying to point out that corruption can be present in even the most reasonable appearing businessman.

The second half of the film relies more heavily on the effects and gimmicks, and it’s disappointing that Vivek’s character gets more sidelined. But it’s still a lot of fun to watch mainly due to Rajinikanth’s performance. The music by A. R Rahman is excellent apart from the Style song mentioned previously, and the high budget of the film is easily explained by the song picturisations. The sets and costumes are totally fabulous and both Thotta Tharani as art director and K. V. Anand as cinematographer deserve the awards they received for their work. There are guest appearances by a number of established Tamil stars including Raghuvaran and Manivannan and  the support cast are all very competent, although generally overshadowed by the superstar.

Although Endhiran (S. Shankar’s latest film with Rajinikanth), had a bigger budget and even more special effects, I prefer Sivaji. The story is engaging despite the way it jumps around and Shankar shows corruption within government systems in a way that seems quite plausible. Even though the one man crusade requires a leap of faith, it is after all Rajni and so anything is possible. It’s one to watch for the lavishness of the sets and the larger than life presence of Rajinikanth. And for all those wigs! 4 stars.

Temple says: Sivaji is what I have come to think of as a typical Shankar blockbuster in that it is all spectacle and very little plot. I think Heather is being overly kind in saying there is a theme to the story as I see it more as a collection of ideas that never really develops. Shankar introduces statements about corruption, the brain drain overseas as bright graduates pursue careers outside of India, the returning NRI and how they navigate between worlds, the obsession with all things American being seen as ‘better’ than local, the clash between tradition and modern living and the nostalgic ideals that may no longer exist. All interesting, and yet there is no real exploration of these notions as there is too much else happening. We move from fight to song to comedy to spectacular song and rarely pause for breath. It’s hugely entertaining, but it doesn’t really bear analysis.

Rajnikanth is in excellent form and this is his film from go to whoa. Sure he is way older than his character, but it somehow works as he deadpans his youthful dialogues, daring you to not believe,  and throws himself into the action with gusto. The fights have been tailored to suit him, and the music shop sequence is one of my all time favourites from any film industry. Shriya can range from terrible (e.g. Kanthaswamy) to pretty good,  and this is one of her better performances. She handles the comedy really well  (I love her expressions in the “Chandramuhki” sequence), isn’t completely overshadowed by Rajni, and does justice to the massive song sets and costumes. And she manages to look like she isn’t staring intently at Rajni’s wigs in the romantic moments so I decided Shriya may be a better actress than I had previously thought.

See this for the spectacular sets and design, for a Superstar who can dominate the hyperactive pace and attention grabbing visuals, for the music (except Style) and for the filmi equivalent of a crazy amusement park ride. You’ll be dizzy and none the wiser at the end, but it was so much fun while it lasted. 4 stars!