Game Over

Game Over

I’m not usually a fan of horror movies, and prefer to watch anything scary at home where I can take a break or turn the lights up. However Game Over sounded a bit different from the usual horror film, and it turned out to be a good decision to go and watch it on screen. There are plenty of the usual horror film tropes; the stalker who breathes as if he has terminal bronchitis, excessive violence towards women and a few jump scares, but there is also a lot here that is different. Game Over isn’t an easy film to watch, nor to classify, but it does have a number of themes which encourage a deeper level of thought than a run-of-the-mill slasher flick. What exactly is going on is never 100% clear, and the audience is free to make their own interpretation of what occurs on screen – and that’s the main reason why I liked this film more than I expected. For me the final message was one of empowerment and overcoming fears, but I can see that this won’t be the case for everyone. Regardless, Taapsee Pannu and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan are excellent and if you are a fan of the genre this is definitely one to add to your list of must-watch films.

The first half is mostly setting up the events for the second part of the film. The opening scenes are immediately terrifying and horrific, showing a young woman’s violent death by a stalker who invades her house. The audience sees everything via the stalker’s viewpoint, ensuring that he (presumably) is never seen, although his breathing is loud and laboured. The film then moves on to introduce Swapna (Taapsee Pannu), a video game developer who lives in a large house with her maid, Kalamma (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan). It’s clear that Swapna has a lot of problems. Her house has a guard outside, she seems hyper-vigilant and she has security cameras everywhere. She’s also terrified of the dark and has a number of odd habits, preferring to sleep on her sofa and asking her maid not to move anything from its usual spot. Via a number of flashback’s we gradually learn that Swapna was seriously assaulted on New Year’s Eve a year ago and has PTSD as a result. After a very convincing breakdown at the door to a dark storeroom prompts a return to her psychiatrist (Anish Kuruvilla), Swapna discovers that she is likely to become more anxious and depressed as the anniversary of her assault approaches. She doesn’t want to follow her specialist’s advice to seek outside support during this time and after a sequence of events challenges her fragile mental state even further, she finally tries to take her own life. But this simply leaves her confined to a wheelchair with her legs in casts as the anniversary date comes around.

During the first half, good writing and convincing behaviour from Taapsee Pannu powerfully illustrate the effect of the assault on Swapna. The combination of Swapna’s mannerisms, repetitive habits and fear of the dark show the extent of her mental disturbance and inability to return to normal life. It’s all very realistic and unfortunately accurately represents the reality that many women are living with. One particular scene that hit home for me was Swapna’s reaction when Kalamma tries to reassure her that her attacker is behind bars. Her response is one I’ve heard repeated in real life, persuasive evidence for me that writers Ashwin Saravanan and Kaavya Ramkumar have done their homework here. Also excellent is the use of remembered conversations to illustrate how not to respond to someone who has suffered a serious assault. But even here the writers leave it open to the audience to decide if these are true memories of victim blaming from her family or instead, Swapna’s own feelings of guilt and remorse surfacing, despite none of it being her fault.

The second half of the film switches gears after a sentimental scene explains memorial tattoos, and a TV news item revisits the unsolved murder seen in the opening scenes. Suddenly Swapna is under attack in her own home and the question becomes one of survival given the odds stacked against her. Here there are the typical horror themes, odd noises, heavy breathing and a faceless serial killer with a sword and apparent grudge against women.  Some of this is genuinely terrifying, particularly since most of the suspense is built up by what isn’t seen, rather than by what is. However once the premise of the second half is revealed, the film does veer more into typical slasher territory, albeit with some good jump scares, but there is an overall drop in the level of tension.

Ashwin Saravanan has crafted a different style of horror film that deals with psychological disturbances and Swapna’s own fears, ultimately becoming an allegory about fighting personal demons and coming to terms with the effects of violent crime. I love the ambiguity that swirls around almost every frame of the film, ensuring it’s difficult to decide just what is real, and what is only in Swapna’s head. Keeping the action mainly to one room in Swapna’s house accentuates the claustrophobic feeling of helplessness, just as everything Swapna does is a clear attempt to have some kind of control over at least one aspect of her life. Taapsee Pannu is good at looking grim and she’s convincing in her doggedly determined efforts to fight off a serial killer in the later half of the film. Where she really excels though is in the portrayal of a young woman with a fragile mental state, particularly realistic with regards to the circumstances that have led to her careful and carefully ordered existence. Vinodhini Vaidyanathan is the perfect contrast. She’s down to earth and pragmatic, but still empathetic and more than just Swapna’s domestic help. Vinodhini adds realism that helps ground the film and includes reactions that perfectly suit her character in each situation. The contrast between the two characters helps give the film some depth, especially since so little background is given while Kalamma’s support for Swapna is a key component in making the story more interesting.

This isn’t a film where there are songs or diversions from the main storyline, and at just over 100 minutes there is little wasted space. The diversion to explain the significance of the first murder is a bit of a stretch, but not a totally impossible one, and I didn’t mind the touch of sentimentality after such a bleak first half of the film. It was good to see Anish Kuruvilla briefly onscreen exuding the quiet confidence that we’d all like to see in a psychiatrist, and Sanchana Natarajan, Ramya Subramanian and Parvathi T are all good in their brief support roles. Although none of the ideas here are totally new in themselves, the combination all together isn’t one I’ve seen before, and the almost entirely female cast is also something of a novelty in Indian cinema. I was also impressed by the film releasing in Tamil and Telugu (I watched the Tamil version) and also in a dubbed Hindi version which hopefully will avoid the watered-down remake that seems to inevitably follow every successful SI film. Game Over is more than a horror film, and not just a psychological thriller either, but rather something in between. Scary, empowering and almost hopeful by the end, this is a film that has a lot to say despite the minimal dialogue.

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Majili

Majili

Shiva Nirvana’s Majili is a romance that feels oddly dated where the characters make some very strange choices, and the plot harks back to attitudes that might have seemed plausible 30 years ago. Naga Chaitanya plays a cricket player whose life is destroyed when he loses the girl of his dreams, while Samantha is the woman waiting patiently for him to notice her. The film is helped considerably by good performances from the main leads, but it’s the support cast of Posani Krishna Murali, Suhas and Rao Ramesh, who end up making the film more interesting than the story would suggest.

The film begins with Poorna (Naga Chaitanya) as a miserably grumpy cricket umpire who spends his night getting drunk in a specific hotel room. The story behind his descent into the bottle is told in flashback when he was a younger wannabe cricket player, and his father had just given him a year to work at making it into a career. Shortly after landing a place on the Vizag Railways team, Poorna meets Anshu (Divyansha Kaushik), the daughter of a navy officer based in the town and the two start a relationship. It’s a patchy affair right from the start as there is little chemistry between the couple and their social divide makes their meetings awkward and clumsy. That might have worked, except there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Anshu to prefer Poorna over anyone in her own social circle, and after he puts her into a situation where she is almost raped, Anshu’s continued desire to be with Poorna seems even less likely. Although Chaitanya tries his best, this is just another typical love story, with the usual parental opposition and a bad guy in the form of Bhushan (Subbaraju). Divyansha Kaushik is bland and unobjectionable, but the romance is all just too unlikely to make any impression, and the finale that ends with Poorna in a hotel room seems completely implausible and a whimpering end to a supposedly grandiose love affair.

Poorna’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and heartache-induced torpor is also overly extreme for such a lacklustre romance. He wallows in his misery and seems unable to find anything worthwhile to do with his time other than mourn the loss of his ‘one true love’. However, at some point in the intervening years he somehow manages to get married to Sravani (Samantha Akkineni) who puts up with his idleness, drunkenness and morose personality with completely unlikely composure. The story tries to make us believe that she always loved Poorna and is happy simply to be his wife, despite the cold shoulder treatment she receives and his total lack of support – either emotional or financial. In fact, it’s Sravani who supports the family with her job as a railway clerk since Poorna’s father (Rao Ramesh) has retired and Poorna is too busy being miserable.

Thankfully, despite her irritatingly subservient attitude, Samantha breathes life and energy into the film. Her interactions with her father (Posani Kirshna Murali) and Porna’s father (Rao Ramesh) are the perfect mixture of funny and sad, and here at last is the spark that was so sadly missing in the first half. Although Sravani’s attitude to her husband quickly becomes wearing, Samantha somehow manages to keep her character from being completely irritating and despite wanting to shake some sense into her, I felt that her rationale was at least constant and made sense from her character’s point of view. Poorna on the other hand was just a waste of space who didn’t take any of the many opportunities he had to turn his life around. The final piece in the puzzle that leads to Poorna’s redemption is lazy and poorly done, although again it’s Sravani who has the best of the generally weak dialogue and ends up as the only one who acts according to her established persona.

Posani Krishna Murali is brilliant as Sravani’s father and his comedy keeps the film from being totally subsumed in weepy tragedy. Rao Ramesh is also unfailingly sensible and brings some much-needed common sense, as does Suhas who shines in a small role as one of Poorna’s long-suffering friends. Subbaraju is totally wasted in the role of a small-town thug with a political agenda who has no significant part to play other than to be the ‘bad guy’ for Poorna to fight at regular intervals. This would have been a much better film without the usual Telugu commercial elements – removing the dull romance, repetitive fight scenes and glamourous song sequences and adding more of Sravani, her family and her story would have made for a more interesting film. Some explanation for Sravani’s ridiculously self-sacrificing attitude would have helped too other than the wishy-washy enduring love that is used.

Overall, Majili is disappointing. The story isn’t plausible and never comes together to form a coherent whole. The bittiness of the plot transfers to the characters, who also don’t always act in keeping with their role. There simply isn’t enough of the good parts – Samantha, Posani Krishna Murali – but instead far too much insipid romance. Gopi Sundar’s songs though are generally good and Vishnu Sharma’s cinematography captures the claustrophobic feel of the family well in the latter half of the film. I wanted to like this, I like Chaitanya and Samantha and perhaps as their first film together I expected a little too much. Worth watching for Samantha, the support cast and Chaitanya in the second half.

Stuartpuram Police Station

Life sometimes throws disappointments my way; shoes that I love on sale but not in my size, clothes with fake pockets, and now Stuartpuram Police Station.

Despite having a top notch cast that includes pretty much everyone you’d expect to see in a 1991 mass film and a good story, which he wrote, Yandamoori Veerendranath makes a muddled mess of a movie.

Rana Pratap (Chiranjeevi) is an honest cop who believes in justice. He returns to his home town of Stuartpuram to find that crooks run the show, and the police are their stooges. This will not do. No. Well, eventually. When Rana Pratap takes time to focus on The Law and not so much on The Ladies. His affections are divided between Alaknanda (Vijayashanti), a sweet and religious girl who is prone to fainting and bursts of focussed violence, and Nirosha, local thief and girl about town.

Chiranjeevi’s introduction was cleverly done through a close up of a very high tech cassette Walkman and headphones. It could only be CHIRU!!!! listening to Sunny by Boney M. So appropriate and yet that levity is not carried through. Rana Pratap is quite dour, and fluctuates between obsessing about how to get his hands on the baddies and obsessing about how to get his hands on Alaknanda. He does all the things that in a non-hero would be called villainous. He bribes a priest to give Alaknanda false advice. He uses Nirosha to set up various criminals and to populate his dance sequences. But really it’s all about loving your family. Rana Pratap’s father was a falsely convicted thief, framed by the same crooked politicians and the like who are still running the show. And Rana had to watch his dad be hanged. So he has a lot of emotional baggage and a reason to want to bring justice to his home.

This is clearly in dire need of Mega Justice. Chiru has good hero skills. He can shoot a knife being thrown at him out of the air, catch it and throw it back at his assailant. The action sequences have their moments but often make even less sense than you’d expect from what is a fairly sane storyline. Rana is lured out to a deserted factory complex where Alaknanda is being molested by a gang of rowdies. Soon Chiru is also tied up but for some reason, perhaps union rules, the rowdies stop rowdying to go get drunk and presumably more rowdy. He coaches Alaknanda to lure them over with some wiggling and grimacing so he can…blatantly chew through the ropes on his wrists and then go the biffo. Perhaps he could have just done that himself without placing her in even more peril. However I liked the way she head-butted one guy who tried to kiss her so the scene is not without compensations. A bit of a drawn out but still fun fight scene ensues and then he…shoots Alaknanda free because who wants to walk a whole 3 metres to safely untie her bonds. A fight with the Big Baddie takes place in an abandoned warehouse full of gas cylinders. What could possibly go wrong! The gas is more of a dry ice fog and the villain decides fighting half naked and wearing a hockey mask is the go. WHY?!?! And Chiru keeps most of his kit on, WHY!?!?!

On the downside Rana Pratap also has the slap happy intolerance for criticism that comes with being a Mass hero and even belts Alaknanda. Not cool. Rana Pratap is a role Chiru can play in his sleep. Perhaps he did. It took 2 hours before Chiru let rip with the one decent “you bastard!” of the film. And it took some major carnage for Rana Pratap to realise that perhaps this story was bigger than just him.

Other than the actual plot Rana Pratap is fixated on that old chestnut. Does he want an angel in the streets or a devil in the sheets? Both? Neither? A little from column A and a little from column B? He certainly makes no secret of his interest in Alaknanda but he doesn’t exactly chase Nirosha away. And he seems even less decisive when they try to swap characteristics. They just don’t understand how this works – he doesn’t want one woman who is everything, he wants all the women who add up to nothing.

Alaknanda is a frustrating character. On the one hand she is religious to the point of it becoming superstition. On the other hand, her credulity allows her to believe Rana Pratap’s rev up speech and go beating up a load of sleazy men at the market.

I feel Vijayashanti really put her all into belting a bloke with a whole bunch of bananas. Being such a delicate young lady, Chiru had to tell Alaknanda where the guy’s nuts were of course. But she quickly learned to stand up for herself, kick arse and take names. She was essential to defeating the baddies in fact. However Rana basically conned Alaknanda into sneaking into his bed, so he is bad news for some forms of agency.

Nirosha is a good match for Chiranjeevi in many ways. She wears fancy high heeled boots even when climbing trees. She likes denim and he loves denim. She steals his uniform and dresses up as Rana Pratap. The lower Rana Pratap unbuttons his shirt the more effective he seems to be at fighting crime and the lower Nirosha unbuttons hers the more compelling her arguments become. They both have higher Brahmi tolerance than I do. And she is game with the choreography, even though their first duet looks more like assorted penguin courtship rituals than The Art of Dance.

Song wise I think Nirosha might in front because she gets to be in the craptacular Bank of Beauty song, which is Chiru’s blingiest and most fun number for this film. She and Alaknanda were both instrumental in the big finale, and it was nice to see the nominal bad girl might have a bright future.

There are really no surprises in the story. Some scenes appear to be hamfisted attempts to recreate something that took Yandamoori’s eye in another movie and that are not really necessary. The flashbacks are long and misjudged. The fight scenes and some of the violence is quite graphic as people are stabbed, shot, set on fire or hacked at with axes and yet it lacks impact in a dramatic sense. Also the framing is often odd, with all the people crammed in to one corner of the screen or missing the top of their heads, with occasional weird jerky transitions and they stealthily try and get everyone back in the shot. Despite all the mayhem, it’s not compelling unless Chiru is on the screen. And even then it’s a struggle to go the distance with this film.

The cast is solid, the idea was good. What a shame. 2 ½ stars!

Bonus pic – this might have been a reasonable cake. But a baddie had to spoil everything by cutting it with a knife coated in blood. Sigh. Another waste of effort.