Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: OK Jaanu (2017)

okjaanu3 Stars (out of 4)

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OK Jaanu (“OK, Darling“) is a straightforward, contemporary romance. No twists, just two attractive people falling in love. The movie works because it knows what it is.

OK Jaanu is a Hindi remake of the 2015 Tamil film OK Kanmani (which I haven’t seen), and from what I understand, it’s pretty faithful to the original. OK Jaanu‘s director, Shaad Ali, got his start as an assistant director under Mani Ratnam, who directed OK Kanmani.

The Hindi version stars Aditya Roy Kapur as video game designer Adi and Shraddha Kapoor as Tara, an architect. At a mutual friend’s wedding, they discover a shared disdain for marriage. They both have plans to leave India in short order: Tara to Paris to continue her architectural studies, and Adi to the United States to “give Zuckerberg a run for his money.”

Allow me a nerdy digression. Mark Zuckerberg is the creator of Facebook, but he’s not a game designer. It would’ve been more accurate for Adi to say he was heading to America to become the next Mark Cerny or Will Wright. (Yes, I know how geeky I sound.)

Adi’s flirty friendship with Tara blooms into a full-blown love affair, though they refuse to utter the word “love”–since their romance must end once they expatriate. The sequence leading up to the consummation of their relationship is very sexy without showing much skin, other than a brief glimpse of Kapur’s shirtless back. The camera pans around the bedroom, letting the sounds of a thunderstorm and A.R. Rahman’s stirring score fill the audience’s imagination.

Adi’s and Tara’s belief that their fling is temporary and free of emotional strings is met with a collective, “We’ll see about that,” by the elder members of their social circle. Their landlord, Gopi (Naseeruddin Shah), recognizes in them the same fondness he and his wife, Charu (Leela Samson), shared in their younger days. As Gopi cares for Charu as her Alzheimer’s progresses, Adi and Tara see a depth of love that they might experience if they were willing to commit to each other.

The main characters’ family situations are a bit confusing, which is unfortunate given that those relationships exist in the story to explain why Adi and Tara are both so biased against marriage. At other times, scene transitions fail to clarify where the characters are geographically.

The lead actors are pretty good, and Kapur’s smile is a killer. However, the characters themselves never really won me over, despite multiple “Having Fun!” montages of the duo and their friends standing in moving convertibles or driving a moped through a cafe. Adi’s and Tara’s first conversation is over cell phones during the middle of a church service, which seems more rude than charming.

Where OK Jaanu redeems itself is in showcasing characters who are open and unapologetic about their sexual desires, all within a narrative that is strongly pro-monogamy. It’s a nice blend of modern and traditional.

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Movie Review: Mostly Sunny (2016)

mostlysunny2 Stars (out of 4)

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Watching the documentary Most Sunny, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what felt off about the film. Only later did I read that the documentary’s subject, actress Sunny Leone, has all but disowned the movie, refusing to attend its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. I can’t say I blame her, because the film is a mess.

During her interview segments, Sunny comes across as warm, funny, and smart. She’s candid about not just her history in the adult film industry but about money as well, celebrating the $100,000 signing bonus she demanded to appear on the Indian reality show Bigg Boss in 2008 as a life-changing sum.

Her killer curves and salacious past distract from her most admirable quality: her business acumen. With the help of her husband and business partner, Daniel Weber, she parlayed a lucrative career in porn into a production company and eventually success in mainstream Indian movies. Sunny herself says, “One thing I was good at was turning a quarter into a dollar.”

It’s difficult to tell Sunny’s story chronologically because her extended family cut ties with her when she became Penthouse “Pet of the Year” in 2003. No one from the Sikh community in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario — where she was raised as Karenjit Kaur Vohra — would agree to talk about her on camera. Her parents died several years ago, so the only relative to speak on her behalf is her younger brother, Sunny (whose name she stole in a panic to invent a stage name). Even though the siblings maintain a close relationship, they never appear together in the documentary.

There are hardly any interviews with people who’ve worked with Sunny in India either. Director Mahesh Bhatt says some kind words about her potential, as does the CEO of the channel that airs Bigg Boss. Sunny’s Ek Paheli Leela costar Rajneesh Duggal mentions that other actors turned down his role before him because they didn’t want to work opposite Sunny, but he doesn’t mention what it’s like to actually work with her. Sunny’s costumer and close confidant Hitesh isn’t comfortable talking on camera.

Sunny Leone’s story is about her fame and acceptance in sexually conservative India following a career in porn, but filmmaker Dilip Mehta is hung up on Sunny’s racy past. Topless shots of the actress scroll across the screen multiple times, a choice that does nothing to inform the audience about the woman herself but to capitalize on a career she acknowledges but has left behind.

Mehta makes a bizarre choice during a segment about Sunny’s adult film production house, SunLust Pictures, where she directs movies but doesn’t appear in the them. There is a shot of a movie in production featuring a full-on sex scene between a man and a woman, their genitals blurred as they engage in intercourse. What is the narrative purpose of this shot? If the point is to titillate, why bother blurring the genitals? It’s not like we can’t tell what’s happening. Mostly Sunny has no MPAA rating, but this scene alone makes otherwise PG-13 content into a hard R.

The topless shots and the sex scene ensure that any people still reluctant to embrace Sunny will never watch the movie. What is the point of Mostly Sunny if not to showcase her as an interesting, normal person? Who does Mehta think his audience is?

It’s hard to decipher Mehta’s objectives for this movie. Scene transitions frequently consist of footage of poor people shot from inside a moving car. Sunny herself isn’t in the car, so this isn’t meant to show what she sees on he way to work at a Mumbai movie studio. It neither reinforces nor juxtaposes with anything else we’re hearing and seeing. It’s just poverty porn.

The footage that runs behind the ending credits is likewise inexplicable. As patrons exit a movie theater following a film showing, they notice Mehta’s camera pointed at them and start dancing or mugging for the camera. What purpose does this serve?

As is often the case in her Bollywood movies, Sunny’s charisma transcends the mediocre quality of this film. That a documentary specifically about her lets her down is disappointing.

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Movie Review: Dangal (2016)

dangal3 Stars (out of 4)

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Walt Disney Pictures’ stamp is all over Dangal, the true story of a father’s quest to fulfill his own dreams of wrestling gold through his daughters. The movie is eminently watchable entertainment for the whole family.

Dangal is based on the life of Mahavir Singh Phogat, played in the film by Aamir Khan. The story begins in 1988, after Mahavir has shelved his own desire of parlaying his national wrestling title into success on the international stage. A recurring theme in the film is India’s failure to compensate or cultivate international-caliber athletic talent, forcing athletes like Mahavir to abandon their sports in favor of stable jobs.

Mahavir’s one hope is that his wife, Daya (Sakshi Tanwar), will give him a son he can raise to be an Olympic champion. When Daya births a girl, Geeta, Mahavir’s disappointment is so deep that the entire town becomes obsessed with folk remedies for begetting male children. When Daya births a second girl, Babita, it’s as though she’s let down all of Haryana, not just her husband. By the time Mahavir’s fourth consecutive daughter is born, he’s abandoned his dreams entirely and metamorphosed into a pot-bellied salaryman.

This obsession with a male heir is played for laughs, but it’s hard not to feel for Daya, Geeta, and Babita. Mahavir isn’t cruel to them, but his disappointment surrounds him like a cloud. It would be hard to live in a home with someone who only sees you as a reminder of what you’re not.

It’s clear that Mahavir doesn’t really see his girls for who they are, because only when they get in trouble for beating up some local boys does he realize that they could become Olympic wrestlers themselves. He immediately institutes a rigorous training program, drafting the girls’ cousin, Omkar — the movie’s narrator and comic relief — as their unwitting sparring partner.

Because Dangal is a Disney co-production, it’s guilty of glossing over issues that might bog down a family entertainer, as several of Disney’s American sports movies have been accused of doing in recent years. Mahavir — and, by extension, the film as a whole — has no regard for his daughters’ emotional welfare. Part of his training regimen requires Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) to cut their hair short and wear boys’ clothing, sublimating their femininity right as they become teenagers, as if adolescence isn’t already hard enough. The movie tries to absolve Mahavir of guilt with a scene of the girls’ 14-year-old friend being forced into an arranged marriage, as is that’s the only alternative.

Geeta shows real promise as a wrestler, making it to the national athletic academy as she hits adulthood. Her exposure to a world that doesn’t adhere to her father’s ascetic rules sets up an in-ring competition between the two that is the movie’s most powerful moment. Khan and Fatima Sana Sheikh — who plays Geeta as an adult — are tremendous in the scene.

Perhaps the best endorsement of Dangal is as a wrestling tutorial. A sequence of Mahavir explaining to his charges the way points are awarded in international competitions pays off later, as the final thirty minutes are just tournament footage.

The tournament footage is beautifully framed, showing the audience the points accrued or time remaining in the round at critical moments. The editing gives a clear sense of the stakes and allows the audience to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout the film. It’s nice to come out of a movie feeling smarter than before.

Despite a failure to address certain troublesome issues, Dangal is ultimately a heartwarming story. It’s appropriate for all ages, and nicely paced to hold the attention of younger audience members. If nothing else, you’ll leave the theater with a new appreciation of the sport of wrestling.

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Movie Review: Lion (2016)

lion3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Lion releases in theaters across North America on Christmas Day.

Lion‘s heart-wrenching international odyssey is carried on the tiny shoulders Sunny Pawar, the adorable star of this true story of a lost Indian boy’s attempt to find home.

5-year-old Saroo (Pawar) lives in a village in Madhya Pradesh with his preteen brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), baby sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki), and their mother (played by Priyanka Bose). Guddu and tiny Saroo do a variety of odd jobs — legal and otherwise — to supplement their mom’s wages as a laborer.

One night, Guddu takes Saroo with him on the train to look for work in a neighboring town, leaving Saroo asleep on a bench on the train platform. After Saroo wakes up alone, he searches for Guddu on an empty passenger train before dozing off in one of the seats. When Saroo wakes again, the train is moving, and it doesn’t stop for two days.

Saroo ultimately winds up in Calcutta, more than 1,000 kilometers from home. He doesn’t speak the local language, and he couldn’t explain where he was from even if he did because he’s just a little kid. As far as he knows, his mother’s full name is “Mom.”

His cleverness and adaptability help him survive on the street for months, staying fed and avoiding child traffickers. He’s so competent that it’s easy to forget that homelessness is just as new to him as the city and the language.

What makes this sequence so effective is that little Sunny Pawar is the picture of childhood vulnerability, with skinny limbs, chubby cheeks, and giant, brown eyes. His very being calls out to evolutionary parental instincts: “Protect me!” Yet, as Saroo, he’s overlooked by most adults as just another street kid. (A note at the film’s end states that 80,000 children go missing in India every year.)

Eventually, Saroo winds up in an orphanage that looks more like a prison. The staff do what they can to find the boy’s mom under the limitations of Saroo’s knowledge and communication technology circa 1986 (i.e. an ad in the local newspaper). When their efforts fail, kindly Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval) shows Saroo a photo of John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley: his new adoptive parents from Australia.

After a typical Tasmanian childhood, Saroo (played as adult by Dev Patel) moves to Melbourne for a course in hotel management, falling in with a group of international students that includes some Indians. Meeting them awakens buried memories of his birth family, inspiring a years-long quest to determine exactly where he’s from.

When Saroo starts his search in 2008, he has at his disposal the satellite images of Google Earth and tables of historic data on train speeds. Even if he’d wanted to look for his birth family at a younger age, the technology to do so wasn’t widely accessible.

Despite the cast’s star-power, most of the supporting roles feel peripheral to the story. That applies especially to Rooney Mara as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who exists just to be pushed away by Saroo as he becomes obsessed with his research. Wenham is solid in his few scenes, and Kidman shines in a monologue about why she adopted Saroo.

An important character who could have used more screentime is Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), another orphan from India the Brierley’s adopted after Saroo. Young Mantosh (played by Keshav Jadhav) arrives in Australia with a load of emotional and behavioral problems, probably as a result of whatever accident left all the scars on his head. The boys share a fraught relationship that boils over when Saroo’s search reminds him of the kind older brother he had before Mantosh.

Bollywood fans will recognize a number of actors like Bose, Naval, and Pallavi Sharda. Stars Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have small but memorable parts as well.

Patel’s performance is compelling, as Saroo’s life crumbles under the weight of trying to appease two mothers: one who’s still searching for him and another who’s afraid of losing him herself. The cocky young man who starts the program in Melbourne is gradually replaced by a shaggy haired, wild-eyed loner who hallucinates his long-lost family.

But Lion ultimately belongs to Sunny Pawar, who is quite skilled for such a young actor. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him.

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Movie Review: Dear Zindagi (2016)

dearzindagi3 Stars (out of 4)

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Dear Zindagi (“Dear Life“) is one of those movies that’s terrific through the climax, only to close with a denouement that undercuts much of the good that came before. Its unfortunate ending contradicts the primary life lessons learned by a young commitment-phobe over the course of the film.

Kaira (Alia Bhatt) is at that point where the biologically ingrained self-centeredness of the teens and early twenties must, by necessity, make way for a more empathetic means of interacting with the world. In short, she’s stuck.

Already an accomplished cinematographer with dozens of commercials and music videos to her credit, Kaira wants to finally shoot her own feature film. The perfect opportunity comes her way via a handsome producer, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), with whom she’s been cheating on her handsome restaurateur boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi).

Raghu offers Kaira the chance to be the lead cinematographer on a film he’s producing in New York City. To address any awkwardness in advance, he warns Kaira that his ex-girlfriend is also working on the project. Kaira seizes on this minor complication as a reason to blow up her budding romance with Raghu and her chance to make the film.

When a new renting rule gets Kaira booted from her apartment, she has no choice but to embark on a visit to her parents’ house in Goa. Her relationship with her folks is icy at best, though only from her end. Mom offers to make Kaira’s favorite foods, and Dad happily boasts about her professional accomplishments. There has to be a reason for Kaira’s attitude, even if we don’t know what it is.

With time on her hands, Kaira takes the opportunity to explore her failed romantic relationships by meeting with an unconventional therapist, Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan). He pushes her to consider why she’s so concerned about what other people think about her–and what, if anything, it has to do with her parents. To paraphrase Jug, Kaira is letting her past blackmail her present at the expense of her future.

Dear Zindagi deftly destigmatizes mental illness and therapy. Kaira is not conventionally “crazy,” but she repeats patterns of behavior that make her and those around her unhappy. She also lacks the conviction that her life choices are valid, regardless of what others say. Solving those problems is a lot easier with help, and the film depicts a recognizable version of cognitive behavioral therapy, flavored with a liberal dose of Shah Rukh Khan charisma.

Kaira is a refreshing character, the flip side of the more common cinematic man-child forced into adulthood by the love of a good woman. The whole point of Kaira’s journey is that she has to do it for herself, not for anyone else. Bhatt’s appeal makes her a wonderful choice for the role. She shines during a lengthy monologue in which she recounts the source of her enmity with her parents. Director Gauri Shinde wisely keeps Khan offscreen while Bhatt speaks, the camera alternating between Kaira in Jug’s office in the present day and flashbacks to her as a young girl. It’s a credit to the director’s faith in Bhatt as a lead performer that she doesn’t rely on Khan’s presence as a crutch.

Shinde — who also wrote the film — makes a couple of decisions that do a disservice to her complicated, intriguing protagonist. A small complaint is that, in addition to all of Kaira’s more interesting flaws, she is also clumsy. After Twilight, clumsy heroines are a bore. Sure, there are a few lines about Jug’s ability to repair broken things and broken people, but they didn’t need to be visualized so literally.

More problematic is an ending sequence that brings back Kaira’s ex-boyfriends for her moment of triumph. It’s mostly an act of fanservice to give the audience a last glimpse of Kapoor, Bedi, and Ali Zafar, who plays Kaira’s handsome Goa fling. Without getting into specifics, what transpires in this sequence undermines much of Kaira’s self-actualization.

Challenging female characters are a rare breed in film, and Shinde wrote a really good one. That’s why it’s so frustrating to be forced to ultimately view Kaira through a male lens, instead of being able to regard her as she is, unfiltered. Dear Zindagi is a step in the right direction, but it stumbles just before the finish line.

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Movie Review: Force 2 (2016)

force23 Stars (out of 4)

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John Abraham’s Inspector Yash returns for Force 2, a more straightforward action flick than its romance-heavy predecessor. Intriguing international locations and a solid cast make this a fitting follow-up to 2011’s terrific thriller.

Five years after the murder of his wife Maya (Genelia D’Souza), Yash is drawn into another conspiracy. Someone is assassinating agents of RAW (India’s CIA, essentially) working in China, using information from within the organization to locate targets.

One of those agents is a childhood friend of Yash’s who managed to send an encoded message to his buddy before his death. The leak within RAW works at the Indian embassy in Budapest. The call to action jars Yash out of his vivid hallucinations of Maya and back into reality.

RAW isn’t about to let Yash tear apart Hungary on his own personal revenge mission. He’s assigned to work under the supervision of agent KK (Sonakshi Sinha), who has contacts in Budapest.

There’s some back-and-forth about the superiority of investigation methods preferred by each law enforcement branch — patient data collection by RAW versus gut feelings by the police — but this ends quickly. KK showcases her reliable instincts and Yash his observation skills, even if some of his investigation methods are unorthodox. KK describes her hair-triggered partner as “a bit wayward.”

Maya’s presence in the story — if only in Yash’s mind — precludes a romance between Yash and KK, allowing their relationship to develop based on professional camaraderie and trust. Abraham and Sinha have a nice rapport, and it’s satisfying to watch their characters learn that they are more effective working together than independently.

For as important a character as KK is, it would’ve been nice to see more of her backstory. At one point, I thought a subtitle read that the film’s villain was her fiance. It’s never mentioned again, so maybe I misread it. Subtitle pacing is a periodic problem, and some crucial voiceovers aren’t subtitled at all.

Sinha acquits herself well in the action sequences, and her character’s casual wardrobe in the second half of the film is killer. Abraham looks great at all times (one of the perks of his being a producer on Force 2).

Undoubtedly, the most compelling performance is by Tahir Raj Bhasin, who plays the villain Shiv Sharma. Bhasin has a threatening stare that he uses liberally, whether Shiv intends to convey his murderous intent overtly or disguise it behind a benign expression. There’s always something chilling about him.

Director Abhinay Deo of Delhi Belly fame has fun with the action scenes. He has Yash swing KK around as a weapon in one close-quarters fight. During a ballroom shoot-out, Deo films the events from Yash’s perspective as if it were a first-person-shooter video game. It’s really well-executed.

Though not as uniquely memorable as Force, Force 2 is still fun, violent action fare. I’d be happy to watch a third Force film.

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Movie Review: Rock On 2 (2016)

rockon22 Stars (out of 4)

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The realism that made the relationships in 2008’s Rock On!! so compelling is missing from Rock On 2, replaced by bizarre behavior masquerading as drama.

Following the events of the original film, the surviving members of the rock band Magik (RIP, keyboardist Rob) had a good run for about three years, playing shows and running their own recording label. Then the suicide of an aspiring musician broke them up once again.

Fast-forward five years to the present day, and formerly destitute guitarist Joe (Arjun Rampal) is a wealthy club owner and reality show judge. Drummer KD (Purab Kohli) still dabbles in music, leaving him with enough free time to narrate the film. Singer Adi (Farhan Akhtar) is living near Shillong on a farmers’ collective, despite having no background in farming whatsoever.

There’s a real logical leap required for Adi’s choices to make the slightest bit of narrative sense, let alone make him a hero. His overblown reaction to the aspiring musician’s suicide is to flee to the hinterlands of India (Shillong is on the other side of Bangladesh), not only breaking up his band and depriving Joe and KD of their source of income, but also abandoning his wife, Sakshi (Prachi Desai), and their then three-year-old son.

Somehow, Adi’s version of penance for playing a minor role in a troubled young man’s death means punishing everyone who loves and depends on him. As Adi puts it: “Every time I’ve tried to make music, I’ve hurt someone.” Substitute any other activity for “make music” to hear how dumb and selfish that rationale sounds: “Every time I’ve tried to clean the bathroom, I’ve hurt someone.”

Adi’s commitment to his new farming community isn’t as solid as he thinks it is. Days after rejecting an in-person plea from KD, Sakshi, Joe, and Joe’s wife, Debbie (Shahana Goswami), to return to Delhi, a suspicious fire destroys the farmers’ crops and homes. Adi gives the farmers some cash and heads back to his old life, telling the farmers to call him if they have any problems.

More than a month goes by without Adi giving so much as a thought to his buds in Shillong, let alone check on them to make sure they’re okay. When his former right-hand man finally rings to say that everyone is starving, Adi yells, “Why didn’t you call me sooner?!” Probably because he was trying not to die, you entitled dope!

Adi’s solution to raise awareness of the farmers’ plight is, not surprisingly, to hold a Magik reunion benefit concert, including new band members Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor) and Uday (Shahshank Arora, whose role is too small for an actor of his caliber). Yet dumbass Adi has the bright idea to hold the concert in a field in Shillong, Woodstock-style.

Consider all the reasons why this is stupid. All of the infrastructure for the concert — stage, restroom facilities, equipment storage — has to be built from scratch, at great expense. All the people with the money to afford concert tickets — the farmers are all broke, remember — live far away, meaning they have to travel (at great expense) just to get to the show.

Joe owns a freaking music club! Just have the concert at his place and charge a couple hundred bucks a ticket! All that money that went into setting up the stupid concert and travel expenses could’ve gone directly to the farmers instead of enabling Adi to waste it on another vanity project to ease his troubled conscience.

Joe is the only rational character in the story, dutifully fulfilling his responsibilities, while refusing to be blamed for things that aren’t his fault. Yet he’s written as a kind of villain, just because he considers events in context and isn’t guided entirely by his emotions. Joe, you’re the real hero of Rock On 2.

P.S. Since this is a movie about a rock band, I should mention the music. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy did a great job writing songs in distinct styles for Jiah and for Magik. Shraddha Kapoor has a good voice, and her character gets the film’s best songs, including “Tere Mere Dil” and “Udja Re” (both embedded below). Magik’s numbers are okay, but I don’t think I can keep trying to convince myself that I like Farhan Akhtar’s singing voice.

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