Saturday, November 26, 2016

Akira [dir. AR Murgadoss]

Simply by not having an extended flashback with an excruciating romance-meets-odious-comedy track, Akira (no relation to Katsuhiro Otomo's classic anime) is 200% better than most Murga-dross movies. Add to it an absence of tedious fantasy song sequences in bad fashion scapes and you have to wonder if the director had one of those "blow on the head that changes your life" moments his protagonists are subject to.

Akira is the official remake of a Tamil film Mouna Guru (which had a male protagonist, and according to Baradwaj Rangan, was a much better film). As Rangan perhaps rightly points out, a woman-centric action film feels obliged to point out why its lead is so quick to sock people. So in a preamble, Akira as a child is witness to an acid attack. For who-knows-what reason the victim's parents appear to have invited the entire neighborhood to witness the unveiling of her bandages, like it was a fucking award ceremony. Akira's Masterji father (Atul Kulkarni in a where's-my-paycheck part) then pushes her into a karate class, oh-so-meaningfully bypassing the adjoining dance class, and almost immediately after, a confrontation with the acid-hurling goons, which lands her a 3-year remand home sentence for causing one of them to splash himself with the corrosive after-shave. One would think the cops should arrest Akira's father for forcing his progeny into an acutely risky vigilante situation, but in Murugadoss' world this qualifies as awesome parenting.

Thus Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) grows up to be a Shiva, with breasts instead of a mustache - She is by nature reserved and taciturn, but ready to take panga with anyone that crosses her; This isn't layered writing, but you don't need more detail for this sort of film. Anyhoo, by a convoluted sequence of circumstances, our heroine gets mixed up with a posse of not-so-bright, not-so-upright cops (led by a cheerfully sleazy Anurag Kashyap) that stole a large bag of cash from an accident victim. To save their own skins they have her framed as a violent delusional and sent to an asylum that rivals the one in Amitabh Bachchan's Yaarana for WTF-ery. You know how it goes from here - Akira-gal must escape from the asylum and flush out her tormentors for justice. This happens with remarkable facility, and there's a last-minute twist that's more difficult to swallow.

Akira doesn't have the sleight-of-hand of say, an Ek Hasina Thi, but trots at a brisk clip without much in the way of stopping to smell the roses. Unlike Rani Mukherjee's forced mardaangi in Mardaani, Sonakshi slips into the character with ease. Given the space, she has an understated charisma and strong instincts as an actor, and effectively conveys Akira's tough-tender nature. It's unfortunate then that Murgadoss shoots the action in a manner that undermines her - lazy choreography, quick cuts and multiple angles don't help to sell the illusion of the badass heroine, and too much seems to have been left to stunt doubles (The brief  'making of' snippets on the DVD show Sonakshi doing multiple kicks-in-the-air, but in the film it's unnecessarily chopped up).

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Labyrinth of Lies [dir. Giulio Ricciarelli]

It is telling that 2014's Labyrinth of Lies was selected as Germany's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign film. In a neatly laid-out manner it covers an "important" issue, of the 1963 German home-grown trial of former Nazis for their concentration camp atrocities, appeals to emotional heartstrings with writing and musical score cues that in no uncertain terms tell you what you must feel and also aims for mainstream appeal with its handsome Dicaprio-esque leading man Alexander Fehling. Fehling plays enthusiastic young lawyer Johann Radmann, a fictional composite of public prosecutors involved in the case, while making a pivotal but ultimately supporting character of Fritz Bauer, who conceived and spearheaded the legal onslaught to expose and lance the festering sore many Germans would prefer to have forgotten (Bauer is also supposed to have passed on crucial information to Israel that led to the capture of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann).

In the film Radmann is eager to prove himself with more worthy cases than the traffic violations assigned him. He picks up the trail of a school teacher identified by as an SS officer by a camp survivor, and is encouraged by Attorney General Bauer (Gert Voss). Radmann digs deeper to unearth a mass machinery of torture and murder that many ordinary Germans of the time were aware of, and complicit in deed. People exposed to Allied accounts of the Nazi evil will find nothing here that's new or shocking (the Nuremberg trials were held immediately after WW2 ended), but the German public remained for a long time in a state of shock and denial about the actions of their own government and people, of what crimes against humanity had been committed in the name of "following orders". Radmann carries out  interviews with survivors and pores over several directories worth of documents to identify former Nazis associated with the camps. His investigation faces resentment and opposition, from his own colleagues and from forces in high circles. But with Bauer's support and encouragement he brings the case to trial, which is where the film ends.

LoL (an unfortunate abbreviation) is very clear-cut and sanitized, too much so to have much impact (at least for a non-German who doesn't have that kind of personal resonance with the issue itself). Compare this to David Fincher's Zodiac, which covered a far smaller scope (lone killer, half dozen victims) but with sufficient detail and layering for us to empathize with the emotional toll on the characters and see them as three-dimensional beings. Here, both victims and perpetrators are mostly cogs in the story machine for us to see the struggle and eventual victory against odds of the haloed hero (the latter are particularly flat, even the teacher is shown to harshly address a pupil just before he is arrested). There is also a romance with a pretty dress-maker, and a lover's tiff when he tells of her father's involvement in Poland. This is not exploration of a searing issue, this is HBO Movie of The Week.

Perhaps I'm being unkind. Perhaps this is the sort of film that needs to be made first, to allow people at large to accept this part of their history before they are ready for more studied works. LoL works well at that, but it is not by any means a great film in itself.