Monday, September 12, 2022

Brahmastra Part One: Shiva

We're going to wind up with something like a month and a half or so of foreign/repertory/alternative Imax releases around Labor Day rather than the usual one weekend where they pull out a "best of summer" or "upscaled classic" for that odd holiday weekend where people apparently aren't going to the movies, whether because they feel like they really shouldn't waste the last nice time to be outside or because there are family gatherings or moves planned (and, hey, moving is kind of a family activity). It's not that things like Brahmastra don't get any time on the big screens, but it's usually one Thursday night or something. This got a pretty broad release, even playing out at the furniture stores.

I don't know if it will get anybody who doesn't normally go for Indian cinema interested, although it's not the right sort of thing to splash across giant screens after a spring & summer of people getting turned on to RRR - it's big, easily digestible (especially in that there are songs but it only kind of dips toes into becoming a musical), and even if one doesn't recognize that it's got an all-star cast, that's the sort of thing that will excite the Desi folks in the audience and maybe rub off on you. Of course, if your audience is anything like mine, they'll also be kind of amusingly ruthless in mocking the ways in which various bits of the screenplay are rickety as heck - there was a lot of laughter at any point when Shiva and Isha professed their love, because they only met each other a couple days before, and you can really only push love at sight so far. I don't get the impression it was really a film-killer for the audience, but not the same sort of "turn your brain off" thing we usually get from American audiences when this sort of thing happens.

Anyway, it's going to be in the big rooms until Wednesday night/Thursday afternoon, when Moonage Daydream and The Woman King grab the Imax screens, although it may still have some 3D showings kicking around (and this is a pretty spiffy-looking movie in 3D). If you've seen all the western blockbusters or want something a bit different, it's a fair amount of fun even if it's not exactly a masterpiece.

Aside: The studio logo amuse the heck out of me. Apparently this was a production of "Fox Star India" when it started, but Disney is avoiding using the Fox name anywhere (good job, awful news network, for making a trusted century-old name in entertainment radioactive!), so it's just become "Star Studios", with "Star" also being the thing that more adult-skewing Disney-owned streaming content goes to outside the US. Anyway, the opening animation is basically the Twentieth Century Fox one with some Indian instruments added to the fanfare, but incongruous because "Star" doesn't really have any connection to the "Twentieth Century Fox".

Anyway, just a reminder that this massive merger is apparently even bigger than one can see just from what it's done to the US movie industry.

Brahmastra Part One: Shiva

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2022 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon 3D)

I'm sure this film's local audience might feel different, but as an outsider, watching one of these big Bollywood fantasy epics in Imax 3D is far more fun for the colorful dancing and festivals in the early, "normal-life" bits than the CGI avatars fighting in an otherwise empty environment of the finale. I can see the latter sort of thing in practically any movie that gets a wide release, after all! Still, the visuals are at least coming from a different place, and all the Indian names you see in a Marvel movie's stereo conversion credits seem to put a little extra effort in for the hometown jobs.

The film opens by dropping a lot of mythology on the audience, with powerful Astras given to various mystics in the Himalayas centuries ago, with the most powerful being the "Brahmastra". The empowered wise men and their successors - known among themselves as the Brahmansh - have been working unseen ever since, although things changed thirty years ago when the Brahmastra was shattered into three pieces. One piece is with scientist Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), although he is attacked on Dussehra by Junoon (Mouni Roy), who has some connection to the fire astra and her two goons (Rohallah Ghazi & Saurav Gurjar). Mohan has a few tricks up his sleeve, but she still winds up with both the Brahmastra fragment and another mystic weapon. What they don't realize is that, in another city, DJ Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is having visions of these events as they happen, which is less pleasant than falling in love with Isha (Alia Bhatt), a posh visitor from London, at first sight. It means he recognizes that the other pieces are in the hands of Artist Anish Shetty (Nagarjuna Akkineni) and a hidden Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), but can the pair warn them in time, and how does it connect to other strange events that have occurred in Shiva's live all the way back to childhood?

There's probably some sort of cogent mythology to the fantasy adventure, especially if the underpinnings are what one has been raised on rather than came to later, but like a lot of fantasy adventures, the heady mythic concepts will often fall by the wayside to service simple action needs. For instance, there's something potentially intriguing about how the three Brahmastra pieces are in the hands of Bramansh labeled as The Scientist, The Artist, and The Guru, capital letters included, arguably representing the three ways humanity can understand the universe, but filmmaker Ayan Mukerji never does much to explore that, sort of jettisoning it when he needs to set up action sequences along other lines. Similarly, there's not a lot of rhyme or reason to when astras bestow animal-themed powers and auras and when they don't.

On a more basic level, the characters and stories are often written as a bunch of cliches where one can see the filmmakers taking shortcuts for some material - the audience laughed at bit about the deep love between Shiva and Isha for the first three quarters or so of the movie, what with these two only knowing each other for two days or so - while they neglecting anything to make the main villains on the ground interesting beyond Junoon having some cool tattoos. There's a feeling that everybody around the world wants their own big fantasy franchise, with Shiva marketed as the first film in a larger "Astraverse", but the task is not only so daunting that their makers very careful to stick to what they know works in other crowd-pleasers, but they want to skip right to the big climax without building up the individual pieces. The Avengers is name-dropped here, but its very existence seems to make other aspirants want to catch up quickly rather than do the same sort of multi-film buildup needed for the big final battle with multiple superpowered protagonists.

It's all amiable enough, as such things go: The actors cheerfully recite nonsense, with stars Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt at least displaying apparent fondness for each other if not actual chemistry. As is often the case, it's the smaller parts where someone can dip in and out that are the most fun: Shah Rukh Khan is around to kick things off in fun fashion, for instance, and Amitabh Bachchan is exactly the guy you call for the part of the wise but not decrepit mentor in the second half. Mouni Roy seems to enjoy playing the villain - well, the one Shiva and company are going to be facing directly for right now - even if the audience doesn't get much insight into what makes her tick. Maybe she and another star making a wordless cameo appearance will have more to do in the next movie, at least in flashbacks.

On top of that, Shiva is a lot of fun to look at, even if it could maybe use more crazy animal avatars and maybe fewer Green Lantern constructs in the big battles. The action may be what the story is built around, and although it can sometimes be rough around the edges where one can see the stunts seemingly performed by digital or physical ragdolls (or the occasional bit of wonky physics), it is solid and often entertainingly designed; Mukerji and the action team are good at putting normal people together with superhumans and recognizing that sometimes you have to go right up to the edge of cartoon stuff to make that work. That said, two of my favorite sequences come early - Khan's Mohan doing goofy monkey action while Roy's Junoon and her flunkies are very serious, quickly followed by a big song & dance number that the characters winkingly admit may be more Diwali than Dussehra. In some ways, the film is visually more fun when the VFX guys are basically using a blockbuster budget to build cool-looking things that can linger rather than fly across the screen and kill someone. Mukerji and the 3D effects guys also seem to be letting it rip, and I wonder if actors being expected to dance and directors being able to stage such things means that they're better prepared to give the action and effects units what they need to produce impressive results despite a lower budget than what Hollywood has.

That said, will I show up for Part Two if it ever gets made (this one has what appears to be an exceptionally long gestation period)? Sure, obviously, I'm a sucker for spectacle like this, even if I suspect it will be an even less coherent mess.

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