Movie Review: Phantom (2015)

Phantom2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Phantom is a revenge fantasy inspired by the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. As political wish-fulfillment, the movie is entertaining enough, but it isn’t truly satisfying.

Phantom opens with a short primer on the attacks that includes harrowing actual news footage. Then the film’s hero, “Jude” (Saif Ali Khan), makes his entrance in unheroic fashion. He engages in a road rage car chase through Chicago that ends in him punching a man who falls to his death in the Chicago River.

“Jude” is an alias of Daniyal Khan, a dishonorably discharged Indian Army officer on a secret mission to assassinate the four masterminds of the 26/11 attacks. His mission first takes him to London, where he meets his contact, Nawaz (Katrina Kaif).

Nawaz has a complicated job description. She works for the not-so-subtly-named US military contractor Dark Water, coordinating security for refugee camps run by Medicine International, who she may also work for.

Daniyal kills the man Nawaz is hired to identify — a high-ranking terrorist trainer — and she is furious for being dragged into his deadly scheme. Still, when she gets a coded phone call from Daniyal, she agrees to help him in his next mission: exterminate David Coleman Headley in jail in Chicago.

While Daniyal receives off-the-record assistance from India’s intelligence agency, their counterparts in Pakistan conclude that the deaths of such prominent terrorists are connected. The Pakistani agents try to identify the man responsible, but Daniyal is always one step ahead of them.

Phantom has an apt tagline: “A story you wish were true.” The notion of one man, freed from political constraints, taking out not one, but four of the most wanted terrorists in the world is immensely appealing. Getting to join him for the ride — with all its accompanying car chases, fist fights, and espionage — makes it even better.

Still, there’s a nagging feeling throughout the film: it couldn’t happen like this. It took ten years and a whole team of US special forces soldiers to kill Osama Bin Laden. One guy with no advanced military training taking out four terrorists in the span of a few months?

It all comes too easy for Daniyal. His most perilous moments consist of him bobbling something in his hand and being delayed by a stalled auto-rickshaw. There’s no one on the ground tracking him; the Pakistani agents gather their information on him remotely. As a result, the movie lacks tension.

Director Kabir Khan wisely resists forcing a love story into the narrative. Daniyal has bigger fish to fry, and Nawaz is rightfully wary of him. Focusing on the two leads as professionals, not lovers, also frees Khan and Kaif to give grounded performances.

One other performance needs special acknowledgement. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the Indian intelligence officer who masterminds the mission, deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for persevering in the face of nonsense. This time, he’s forced to give a corny speech, urging Indian naval officers to pluck up their courage and buck orders for the sake of this one man — this one man! — who was willing to risk his life for India.

Ayyub’s speech is part of a third act that is cheesier than the rest of the film. Fortunately, Director Khan ends Phantom on a contemplative note that befits the seriousness of the events that inspired it. We can wish for an easy path to justice, but we can never take it lightly.

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Opening August 28: Phantom

The Bollywood terrorism thriller Phantom — starring Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif — opens in Chicago area theaters on August 28, 2015.

Phantom opens on Friday at MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 28 min.

All Is Well carries over for a second week at all of the above theaters.

The rest of the South Barrington 30’s weekend Hindi lineup includes Brothers, Drishyam, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and the dubbed version of Baahubali.

Also opening in limited release on Friday is Learning to Drive, starring Ben Kingsley as a Sikh driving instructor who helps Patricia Clarkson find her independence following the breakup of her marriage. Learning to Drive opens at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Century Centre Cinema in Chicago, and the Century 12 Evanston/Cinearts 6 in Evanston on Friday, before expanding into suburban theaters in the coming weeks.

Other Indian movies showing in the Chicago area this weekend include:

Streaming Video News: August 26, 2015

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions to the catalog that are sure to delight Shahrukh Khan fans. The classic Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is now available for streaming, as is 1997’s Pardes.

For everything else new to Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

Thoughts on Baahubali

I write about Hindi-language movies almost exclusively at this site, but I have to make an exception for Baahubali: The Beginning. The Telugu-Tamil fantasy film became such a huge success internationally — with collections in North America alone well above $8 million — that producers commissioned a special edition of the film for international audiences. Editor Vincent Tabaillon is tasked with trimming the nearly three-hour epic for screening at festivals and shopping to distributors. I’m hopeful that the new edition will get a run in the US, even after we already got the original version. Baahubali is a movie that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

I adore Baahubali. The world created by SS Rajamouli is so vast and colorful that it feels like a video game mashup. Its hero, Shivudu, is a superpowered version of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake, but with beefier arms and no guns. Shivudu leaves his jungle home by climbing a massive waterfall, and then finding snowy fields that border an ancient metropolis, giving the feeling of progressing through the levels of a Japanese role playing game (e.g., Xenoblade Chronicles).

And if gorgeous settings, political intrigue, and epic battles aren’t incentive enough, stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, and Tamannaah Bhatia are all fabulous looking.

When considering the film’s re-edit, the most obvious material for Tabaillon to excise are battles and musical numbers. As cool as the giant battle in the second half of the film is, it goes on for a really long time. It’s possible to maintain a sense of the battle’s scale while trimming it rather significantly. As for the music, I’d personally prefer to see as much of it retained as possible, since the soundtrack is incredible — especially “Dhirava“.

Assuming that the goal of the Baahubali re-edit is to reach new fans who don’t otherwise watch Indian films, there are a couple of issues that could surprise or offend Western audiences, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to be satisfactorily addressed in the editing process. First is Shivudu’s “courtship” of Avanthika. Rather than just talk to her, he sneaks up on her twice and tattoos her. Not only is it creepy, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate that his actions endanger her and threaten her standing among her people. And, no, this isn’t just a case of American political correctness imposing itself on another culture. Indian critic Anna MM Vetticad wrote a thorough takedown of the sequence, going so far as to call it rape.

Another issue is the way the movie addresses skin color. Bollywood has a preference for fair-skinned heroines, and the US does more than its share of whitewashing in movies and TV shows, so it’s a common problem. But Baahubali uses makeup in some overt ways that send the message that light skin is good, dark skin is bad.

Avanthika first appears to Shivudu in a vision as a pale apparition who entices him to climb the waterfall. When he sees her in reality, she’s a warrior with sun-baked skin. During their love song, he dips her under a waterfall, washing away her tan so she looks like the pale goddess of his imagination. He isn’t content to love her the way she is. He wants his dream girl, and his dream girl is fair.

On the flip side, the villains who attack the kingdom in the film’s second half are played by actors covered entirely in black makeup. It’s not clearly identified as some kind of war paint, so this appears to be blackface on a massive scale. While blackface doesn’t have the same stigma in Indian films that it does elsewhere in the world, Western audiences — Americans especially — will cringe when they see this.

It would be difficult to make changes to the thousands of warriors who fight for the bad guys, but perhaps some CGI makeup effects could be added to the rival chieftain to make it clear that this is battle regalia, and not a bunch of lighter-skinned actors dressing up as “evil” black guys.

Nevertheless, I think Baahubali is a tremendous achievement, especially considering that it cost less to produce than most American romantic comedies. Hollywood studios are foolish if they don’t offer Rajamouli a superhero franchise to direct. I’m excited that new audiences will get to experience Baahubali thanks to this re-edit. More than anything, I can’t wait until the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion in 2016!

Bollywood Box Office: August 21-23

All Is Well turned in an unspectacular opening weekend in North American theaters. From August 21-23, 2015, it earned $74,033 from 55 theaters ($1,346 average).

While one might have expected more from a movie starring Rishi Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan, the results are typical for a Bollywood movie opening in fewer than 70 theaters. About half of all Hindi films released in the US and Canada last year — 25 films, not counting The Lunchbox — opened on fewer than 70 screens, and only six of them earned more than $75,000 in their opening weekend. This year, just two of the ten Bollywood films to open in fewer than 70 theaters passed that threshold: Hamari Adhuri Kahani ($94,005) and the surprise hit NH10 ($143,209). The low opening weekend theater count suggests that distributors weren’t expecting much from All Is Well, and the movie met those expectations.

In its second weekend, Brothers‘ business fell by about 75% from its opening weekend. It earned $90,284 from 129 theaters ($700 average), bringing its North American total to $607,945.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, on the other hand, held strong in its sixth week. It took in $65,911 from 34 theaters ($1,939 average), bringing its total to $8,009,524.

Drishyam also remained popular, earning another $26,162 from 15 theaters ($1,744 average). Its total stands at $709,794.

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: All Is Well (2015)

AllIsWellZero Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Few movies have angered me as much as All Is Well. It’s cruel and offensive, making light of human suffering for the sake of an easy moral lesson.

This is a huge surprise given that Umesh Shukla is behind the camera. The last film he directed (and co-wrote) — 2012’s OMG: Oh My God — is funny, understanding, and generous of spirit. Then again, Shukla also directed 2009’s Dhoondte Reh Jaoge, a rip-off of The Producers that I also described as offensive. Maybe OMG was the aberration, and All Is Well is Shukla showing his true colors again.

All Is Well fancies itself a comedy about a bickering father and son, played by Rishi Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan, respectively. When Bhalla (Kapoor) isn’t losing money via his unpopular bakery, he’s yelling at his wife Pammi (Supriya Pathak) and son Inder (Bachchan).

Growing up in such a hostile environment turns Inder into a complete misanthrope. After having been kicked out of the house for calling his dad a loser, he’s spent ten years in Bangkok, avoiding his parents and struggling as a musician.

Inder’s misanthropy is most acutely directed at Nimmi (Asin Thottumkal), a brain-dead chatterbox who is in love with him. Nimmi is so oblivious that she can’t recognize Inder’s contempt for her. Her arranged marriage subplot is shoddily tacked on to the main story, in which Inder is tricked into coming home to settle his father’s debts. Everyone is an unrepentant jerk throughout, and few cinematic “happy endings” have felt less earned.

All Is Well does wrong by so many people. Dwarfs and people with dark complexions are the butt of needless, hurtful jokes. The movie — written by Sumit Arora and Niren Bhatt — has no respect for women, hence why Nimmi is portrayed as a total dumbass, desperate to marry.

No character suffers as much as Pammi, who is a human plot device. Inder returns to India to find his mother in an “old folks home” suffering from Alzheimer’s. (Note that Pathak is only 54.) The movie makes the following untrue claims about Alzheimer’s, all in the name of moving the story forward:

  • The progression of Alzheimer’s can be stalled if you keep the patient happy at all times.
  • Alzheimer’s is caused by familial neglect, somewhat on the part of one’s spouse, but mostly due to neglect by one’s children.
  • Alzheimer’s can be improved, if not outright cured, if said neglectful children move back in with their parents.

I haven’t mentioned it at this website, but earlier this year, my mother died in her mid-sixties after suffering for five years with a degenerative neurological condition. Not Alzheimer’s, but another incapacitating disease with no specific cause and with a similarly slow decline (both mental and physical) and grim prognosis.

It’s hard to watch a parent undergo such hardship without any hope of a cure and without anyone to blame for it. There was no accident, no source of infection. There was no one to yell at, no one to sue — not that it would have helped. She was predisposed to get sick, she did, and it was horrible.

So, for Umesh Shukla, Sumit Arora, and Niren Bhatt to imply that someone like my mom might suffer a terrible death because her kids didn’t pay enough attention to her is bullshit. It’s offensive, and it’s mean.

To make light of such a dreadful condition for the sake of a comedy film is beyond callous. Pammi might as well be just another prop, the way she’s shuffled from car to house, forced into a situation she can’t possibly understand. She utters only a handful of words, which is a tremendous waste of an actress of Pathak’s caliber.

There’s no reason to see All Is Well. None. Something this hateful shouldn’t be rewarded.

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Opening August 21: All Is Well

One new Hindi movie opens in Chicago area theaters on August 21, 2015. Sadly, it isn’t Manjhi: The Mountain Man but All Is Well, a comedy whose trailer promises lots of yelling and pee jokes. The only reasons for optimism are that it’s directed by Umesh Shukla of OMG fame and stars Abhishek Bachchan, who’s good in comedies.

All Is Well opens Friday at MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 7 min.

Brothers carries over for a second week at all three of the above theaters, plus the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie, and Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison.

The South Barrington 30 and Cantera 17 carry over both Drishyam and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which also sticks around at MovieMax.

The Pakistani film Bin Roye gets another week at the South Barrington 30.

Other Indian films playing in the Chicago area this weekend: